Here’s a thought experiment for you. Imagine you could find a person who didn’t know 1) who Jeb Bush was or 2) what pursuit he was involved in. You showed the person a video clip of a Bush press conference or speech, but with the sound turned down, and you asked the person, just based on the expression on Bush’s face and the hang of his shoulders and whatnot, where is this man, and what is he doing?
I think your person would say something like: “Well...he looks like he’s at a funeral. Attending the funeral of a friend’s mother. Or maybe not even a friend. Maybe a co-worker, or employee. He didn’t know the woman. But he’s there, because he needs to be, and he’s paying his respects. ‘I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m sure she was a wonderful woman.’ He’s doing his duty, but he also looks like he’d really rather be somewhere else.”
Bush has a lot of problems, which have become excruciatingly evident this week as he’s managed to offend Latinos and Asians and women (again) while still making no apparent headway with the kinds of people you’re supposed to make headway with by offending the aforementioned. But when you get right down to it, this is his problem. The Donald pegged him. He is a “low-energy person.” He looks like he has only the barest minimum interest in doing this.
On some level, politics is all about the gene. John Ellis doesn’t have it. No zest. No happy warrior thing going on at all. Say what you will about Dubya, and trust me, I said most of it at one time or another. But he had the gene. He liked politics. He enjoyed campaigning. He pinned his shoulders back up on stage, stood erect, gazed upon the crowd with something you might call command. Remember that smirk? Oh God how liberals hated that smirk! I remember how people on my side used to carry on about it, how it betrayed exactly the kind of shoot-first cowboy braggadocio that liberals find repulsive—and indeed, that ended up fucking up a big part of the world to this day. So we were right about that smirk. But at least he was smiling. At least he was up there having fun.
But Jeb. Yeesh. What’s he doing out there? It’s just duty. And not family duty either. Remember, his mom said he shouldn’t do it. His wife seems cool on it. At best. So it’s not family. It’s mostly party duty. Duty to the money people. Class duty.
Watching him I sometimes wonder: How did this guy get to be a governor? One thing I’ve learned in my years of covering politics, one of the more surprising things, I would say, is just how many utter mediocrities become governors. This is understandable in a lot of those puny states out there where the competition ain’t so great. And where either one party or the other is clearly dominant. So if you’re a Republican state legislator in Wyoming and you have a little charisma, or a Democratic mayor of Providence who has successfully avoided indictment for eight years, well, you can get to be governor. The road is not laid with many traps.
But Florida’s a big state. Probably a lot of talent there, comparatively speaking. How did Bush do it? Well, he was elected (1998) at a time when his last name was still a plus. And he was a Republican, and Florida elects Republican governors as a rule—I mean crikey, they’ve twice voted in a guy who swindled the federal government on Medicare, which many voters probably saw as a plus. So that’s all it took. He was a Republican, and his name was Bush.
But now that his last name is a liability, even (or especially) among GOP primary voters, he has to go out and get it, and the first step in getting it is wanting it, and he doesn’t seem to want it. In fact it looks like he dreads the thought of becoming president. Or is indifferent to it, which might be worse. Candidates have problems that they can fix. But how do you fix that problem?
So here’s how things seem to be shaping up, maybe. There’s going to be Trump. And then, after the rattle and hum of the first few contests, and the Perrys and Jindals and so forths have gone on their merry ways, there’s going to be one anointed non-Trump, whom the party’s panjandrums decide to get behind collectively in order to stop Trump. And that person is likely to be either Bush or Scott Walker or Marco Rubio or John Kasich. Or maybe someone else. (What’s that I hear you say? Mitt Romney? Not, at this point, an insane idea. Think about it.)
The non-Trump should easily and clearly have been Bush. And it still could be. I notice that still this week, even while Bush is getting slagged by everybody, the political futures market continues to rate him the favorite for the Republican nomination. So the wisdom of the crowd still says Bush, but we sense that it’s said in the same way that people might say “New England” or “Seattle” when asked who’ll win next year’s Super Bowl. The answer doesn’t reflect thought and analysis, just resigned reflex.
So he could still be the nominee, and by definition that means he could still be the next president. But as of now, he looks to have the makings of being one of the biggest flops in the history of presidential politics. A year ago all the experts thought otherwise, and sometimes the experts are right, but in this case, it’s looking like Mother knew best.