Politics & Policy

Jeb’s Graceless Decline

Bush with supporters in Las Vegas, September 17, 2015. (Ethan Miller/Getty)

Writing with uncharacteristic acidity in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan offered up an explanation as to why Jeb Bush has thus far failed to deliver on his promise. “Reporters,” Noonan proposed, have tended to assume without cynicism that Bush must be a “national candidate” because he is part of a “national family.” The last few weeks have served to disabuse us of that notion.

We have learned, Noonan records, that Jeb is “only a governor” — no more guaranteed success or assured of greatness than any aspirant with a less recognizable surname. Certainly, his pedigree has ensured that the supply side of his campaign would be taken care of: For almost half a century now, America has been furnished with an ample supply of ambitious, well-funded Bushes. On the demand side, however, things have been far less rosy. If, as I consider likely, Bush eventually recognizes that his overtures have been met with jaded indifference, he will have struck an inadvertent blow for meritocracy and demonstrated an age-old truth, to boot: However much polish and gold the masters of the universe can dispense, there is no easy way to sell a superfluous product. Surveying the present scene, critics of both the “establishment” and that protean supervillain “money” should be breathing a touch more easily.

Implicit in the argument for Jeb is the questionable supposition that he cuts a gentlemanly figure in an ungentlemanly age. When David Brooks writes in lamentation that Bush would have been a more “effective candidate” in 1956 than he is in these “harsher times,” he’s indulging a perennial conceit that, despite the explicitly anti-aristocratic presumptions of the American founding, has not entirely died out on this side of the Atlantic. In the United States, as elsewhere, men who carry great or celebrated names upon their shoulders are assumed by rights to be gentlemen, if not more. Just as Bush has been prematurely pre-approved as a “national” figure, so he has been precipitately cast by the pundit classes as a gracious, accomplished, and forbearing statesman; as a man of contemplation and moderation; as a selfless and patriotic type who is afflicted by a detached insight that his colleagues sorely lack.

RELATED: Jeb Bush’s Sad Performance at the Debate Confirms He’s Not the Right Choice for 2016

Is he, in fact, all — or any — of these things? Is there any reason to believe this hype? That, I’d venture, will depend heavily upon how Bush chooses to conduct himself going forward. And at this stage the warning signs are flashing scarlet.

However much polish and gold the masters of the universe can dispense, there is no easy way sell a superfluous product.

Put plainly, Jeb now has a choice, the resolution of which will determine the manner in which he is perceived among his friends for the rest of his political life: He can fight gracefully, live up to his hopeful rhetoric, and accept with alacrity what fate has in store; or he can throw a fit of entitlement and betray himself as the worst of sore losers. There is plenty of evidence, alas, that he is being tempted toward the latter, uglier course.

RELATED: Jeb’s Coriolanus Syndrome

During last week’s CNBC primary debate, Bush repeatedly dinged rival Marco Rubio for missing a number of recent Senate votes, thereby ensuring that a petty and disingenuous critique that is equally applicable to every presidency-seeking legislator will henceforth be sold with the affixture “even Jeb Bush says . . . ” Meanwhile, behind the curtains, his team was busy unleashing a nasty whisper campaign against the same target, the basic gist of which is that Rubio is in possession of a “concerning” background that makes him a “risky bet.” 

#share#That there seems to be little evidence to back up the whispers — and, indeed, that the teams charged with investigating Rubio have pushed back strongly against their substance — is immaterial. What matters is what they tell us about the state of Jeb’s mind and the integrity of his soul. As a veteran of the political world, he is keenly aware of the damage that frivolous and expedient complaints can do to a movement in the long run, especially when those complaints are accorded a partisan imprimatur. That, in a desperate attempt to obtain a marginal advantage, he has chosen to release a set of injurious and infinitely malleable allegations into the cultural bloodstream is telling. All things being fair in love, war, and politics, one would expect to see tactics such as these deployed without mercy by the GOP’s antagonists, and, perhaps, by the more capricious among the primary season’s willful wrecking balls. But by Jeb? The adult? The gentleman? The man of foresight and patience and sobriety and joy? Having watched what the eventual losers did to Mitt Romney’s reputation in 2012, is this really the legacy he hopes to secure for himself?

#related#In public affairs as in comedy, timing is all. Great men tend to understand instinctively when to enter, when to pause or demur, when to rush the barricades and grasp the wires, and, crucially, when to exit. All in all, there is only one thing more tragic than a good man who cannot intuit when it is time for him to leave the stage, and that is a good man who takes to the spotlight’s final beam in order to assail the other players and damn their applause. In the theater, such characters tend to be ushered kindly into the wings, amid glowing remembrances and the promise of sinecures and testimonials. In politics, no such kindness is typically forthcoming. History can be a harsh mistress, especially for those who impotently berate their own kind. A prominent last name will only shield a man for so long.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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