Politics & Policy

Jeb Bush: Solid in Theory, Uninspiring in Practice

(Alex Wong/Getty)

Since George W. Bush’s name ceased to be an electoral asset for the Right, conservatives have wondered aloud whether the Republican party would have been better off had Jeb been in a position to win the nomination in 2000. George W., this theory goes, was the inferior brother: less wonky, a worse speaker, a squish on some crucial matters, and possessed of a faux-cowboy mien that has tainted the Republican brand. Perhaps if Jeb had been president, things would have worked out differently? Perhaps, then, we would never have been saddled with Obama?

At times, I must confess, I have wondered this myself. But, watching last night’s debate, I couldn’t help but think that the idea is bunk. Although I have never been much impressed by the prospect of another Bush presidency, the theory behind Jeb as the nominee is a solid one. All told, he is a smart, knowledgeable, and calm man who ran a crucial state extremely well for eight long years. Moreover, he is well-connected and smartly advised, and his campaign structure comes pre-assembled. He is, the conventional wisdom goes, a serious man — the adult in a room that is often full of children. Standing next to a meandering buffoon such as Donald Trump, he should exude poise and self-control, and exhibit an understanding of how to fight smart — sometimes engaging, sometimes falling back, always keeping his hand on the tiller. In a field full of newbies and dilettantes, he should be uniquely familiar with the pitfalls and cognizant of the opportunities.

RELATED: Why Jeb? There Is No Obvious Case for Bush III

In practice, though, he just doesn’t quite . . . work. He can’t deliver his put-downs or his rejoinders with confidence, as Carly Fiorina can; he doesn’t speak with authority, as Chris Christie does; he can’t explain his positions coherently, as Marco Rubio can. He doesn’t sell his governing experience convincingly, his attempts to present himself as an outsider feel forced, and, despite having an unusually interesting life story for the son and brother of a president, he seems incapable of weaving it into his pitch. Worst of all, elementary debating tactics elude him — any good lawyer knows you do not ask questions to which you don’t know the answer, and you certainly don’t demand public apologies from unprincipled live wires. It’s been four months now since Jeb got into the race, and a question is beginning to form in my mind: When are we going to see the product that has been promised? At least you wanted to have a beer with George W.

#share#This, in turn, raises another inquiry: If not experience or gravitas or the ability to sell policy, one wonders what exactly Jeb brings to the table. There are some important differences between the Republican candidates this time around, and I hope they’ll be explored in more detail when Donald Trump has been consigned, screaming, to the alligator pit. But, Rand Paul and Rick Santorum aside, the outline of a successful GOP administration would probably be broadly similar regardless of who won. Can anybody argue with a straight face that, of all of the men and women offering their services, the Republican electorate should select the brother of the last GOP winner and the son of the one before him — a man who hasn’t held office since 2006? As was Mitt Romney in 2012, Hillary Clinton is at present being haunted by the electorate’s suspicion that “But I really want to be president” isn’t a sufficient justification for a serious candidacy. After last night, I wonder if Jeb will soon suffer the same fate. The man has long suffered from a lack of demand (who, exactly, was clamoring for his entry?); are we to believe that his performance in California created a host of new fans?

#related#It is perhaps an indication of how dramatically the world has moved on since Bush’s heyday that he was repeatedly upstaged last night by his one-time protégé Marco Rubio. It was Rubio, not Bush, who explained why it can be profitable for conservative candidates to speak to the electorate in Spanish (“I want them to hear directly from me, not from a translator at Univision”); it was Rubio, not Bush, who delivered the most coherent policy answers; it was Rubio, not Bush, who seemed to understand instinctively when to stay quiet and when to talk; and it was Rubio, not Bush, who appeared unfazed by the Donald Trump show, answering jab after jab calmly and with a smile. When the dust settles and silly season is over, isn’t it possible — likely even — that the space for a grow-the-party figure will be filled adequately and unassailably by the junior senator from Florida, and not his older, more established, friend?

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review and the author of The Conservatarian Manifesto.

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