Politics & Policy

Oh Brother, Why Art Thou Even Running?

Bush speaks in Des Moines, Ia., on May 16. (Scott Olson/Getty)

So there’s this story going around, surely a piece of fiction from a typically clueless Hollywood writer or something, that there’s a Republican candidate for president who is open to raising taxes, who urged the confirmation of Loretta Lynch as attorney general, and who is not just a supporter of but a prime mover behind the Common Core education mess while blasting opponents for pushing “conspiracy theories.”

This figment of the imagination also has spent years pushing vastly expanded immigration and what can be described only as mass amnesty for illegals. Not only that, but he has repeatedly said or strongly implied that those who don’t agree with him are not merely misguided, but heartless or nativist (and, yes, “un-American”).

This man has said that today’s Republican party is far to the right of Ronald Reagan; has said that Republicans are equally at fault with Democrats for the negative tone and ideological rigidity of national politics; has personally handed Hillary Clinton an award for “public service” while praising her extravagantly; has supported international negotiations to reduce carbon emissions; has defended President G. H. W. Bush’s 1990 budget deal; has said he hopes to govern like Lyndon Johnson; gives speeches in a style described as “reading off a TelePrompTer with the enthusiasm of an asparagus-eating toddler”; has listed as a top foreign-policy adviser a man notoriously antagonistic toward Israel; was almost invisible during most of the battles against the Obama administration; has not run in a campaign since 2002; and, finally, managed to lose an election in a rather conservative state in what was otherwise the most triumphant electoral season (1994) for Republicans in the past 35 years.

On second thought, not even Hollywood would be clueless enough to try to sell this story as a realistic drama about a possible Republican nominee. It must be intended as satire. After all, surely Hollywood can’t expect audiences to take seriously a candidate who can’t anticipate and have a cogent answer to a simple question about the biggest foreign-policy decision of this century, namely, the decision to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003. Or to have a cogent answer when given a second chance. Or to have better than a barely cogent answer when given a third chance. Or to fail completely, in three consecutive chances, to turn the question around so as to put President Obama and the Democrats on the defensive, or to list any of the considerable benefits of the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein (even if ultimately deciding that in retrospect it wasn’t worth it).

Sure, a Hollywood writer might think that such stumbling around an obvious question is how candidates ordinarily respond — if the writer lived in a time warp and thus had as a most recent example the infamous interview Ted Kennedy did with Roger Mudd in 1979. Then again, maybe that’s the standard not for ordinary candidates, but just dynastic ones. Maybe Hollywood concluded that someone dynastic need not be dynamic.

It may just be that when your brother was president and now you want the job, all that’s expected of you is hemming and hawing and let-me-say-this-about-thatting. As the always-astute Deroy Murdock wrote of this sadly non-fictional Bush leaguer, “The result will be an uninspiring reminder that Jeb is just the latest installment in the Republican version of the Kennedy family. Jeb’s comments on Iraq this week will haunt him.” 

Of course, this Hollywood satire is about the very real Jeb Bush, and yes, this was for the former Florida governor what the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza accurately described as a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week.” The Post’s conservative Jennifer Rubin reasonably noted: “That every candidate, regardless of the position they took, had a better answer on Iraq than Bush, the one person who should have had his answer down pat, creates a legitimate concern about his ability as a candidate.”

The likelihood of drift from conservatism grows only stronger when a former governor wanders outside politics for eight years without frequently engaging at the top level of national policy debates.

Bush defenders quite rightly note that he was a very good, and mostly conservative, governor of Florida. But they (and too many others, in general) wildly overestimate the applicability of a conservative governorship to the right sort of conservative governance in D.C. Other superb governors ended up being disappointments in the nation’s capital. Wisconsin’s Tommy Thompson, for example, was unimpressive as secretary of health and human services. New Hampshire’s John Sununu, as chief of staff, gave us Supreme Court justice David “Empty” Souter. Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander has been only decent, not great, as secretary of education and as senator.

The likelihood of drift from conservatism grows only stronger when the former governor wanders outside politics for eight years without frequently engaging  (unlike, say, Ronald Reagan) in the arena at the top level of national policy debates.

Unlike even Ted Kennedy in 1979–80, who at least was carrying a clear ideological banner, Jeb Bush gives absolutely no indication that he is animated by a particular agenda or set of principles other than a vague sense that he wants to elevate the tone of the debate. He’s running a campaign of kinder-gentler redux, with another thousand points of light surely ready to shine through the mists of time.

The exceptions to his desire for an elevated tone, though, always seem to come when he’s disagreeing with those to the right of him. I’ve stood there myself just feet away from him as his supercilious disdain for the great unwashed hordes of conservative activists could be read from not only his lips but every bit of his body language.

Conservative activists can easily see it: Jeb dislikes us. Like father, like younger son.

No, this story isn’t straight from Hollywood, but we’ve seen this movie before — and there’s no need to see a rerun, or a sequel. We already know it’s a sure box-office dud.

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