The Sad, Strange Story Of Jeb Bush’s 2016 Presidential Campaign

Melanie Schmitz
Feb 28, 2016 · 5 min read

On Saturday, Feb. 20, following yet another round of disappointing numbers out of the South Carolina primary, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush suspended his bid for the presidency, effectively ushering in the final hours of the waning Republican Party and opening the gate for a new era of divisive, abusive politics.

No one could say it was entirely surprising.

“I am proud of the campaign we’ve run to unify our country,” Bush said blearily, standing in front of a large banner emblazoned with the words “Trusted Leadership for a Stronger America”, his official campaign slogan. “[But] the people of Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina have spoken, and I really respect their decision.”

While Bush had gone into the Palmetto State with competitive enough polling results, his national numbers left something to be desired. Trailing the pack with just 5.4 percent support — only a short distance behind rivals Ben Carson and John Kasich, but a whopping 28.8 percent behind front-runner Donald Trump, according to a Real Clear Politics aggregate — Bush seemed to be clinging to his 2016 bid by a thread. After a dismal showing at last week’s GOP primary debate, in which Trump made Bush out to be his personal punching bag, a campaign suspension announcement seemed inevitable.

The atmosphere inside the campaign hall on Saturday night was appropriately despondent, but it wasn’t always this way. In the early days of his 2016 run, which began officially in June last year, Bush enjoyed solid poll numbers, even managing to best the now seemingly unbeatable Trump for a short time. Despite critiques at what some viewed as an intolerable dynastic presidential line, Bush, it seemed, was a shoo-in.

Disney/ABC Television Group

And then Trump did what Trump did best: He bullied. More specifically, he seemed to hone his sharpened attacks on the “low-energy” Bush, making a mockery of Bush’s relatively buttoned-up qualities with renewed vigor as the months progressed. Between openly and repeatedly calling the ex-governor a liar, lampooning his selected eyewear, and painting him as the third act in a failed Bush legacy, Trump stopped at nothing to shred any lingering hopes Bush had at running a self-assured campaign. By last week’s GOP debate in Greenville, South Carolina, the shaky Jeb Bush that took to the CBS stage was a hollow-shell of the poised candidate supporters once knew.

Bush’s rivals, of course, followed along in Trump’s wake — unwillingly, but without a second thought. As Ted Cruz began to ramp up his rhetoric to match Trump’s, perhaps hoping to score the same blistering lead as the bombastic mogul, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Carson (and perhaps even Rand Paul, for a short time) warily hopped aboard the Trump train in an explosive power-grab, increasing the severity of their language or taking on firmer stances as the Party’s scrappy alternative candidates. Bush, however, never seemed able (or eager) to do the same.

Bush came from an era of contemporary partisanship, where a renewed brand of traditional conservatism reigned supreme: Stalwarts like former House Speaker John Boehner and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham led the charge from their comfortable spots in the old boys’ club, letting fresh faces like Paul Ryan and Rand Paul flit around the edges of the movement to draw in younger voters. Former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were often seen as the cherished monoliths of their respective parties, and though they often toed the line in their legislative battles, things rarely got wildly out of hand.

Michael Vadon

By contrast, the 2016 GOP campaign trail turned out to be a completely different breed of animal, much to Bush’s chagrin. By the time the first primaries and caucuses rolled around, it was nearly unrecognizable as a presidential campaign. Vulgarities, dismissive language, even violent altercations at political rallies firmly established the Republican race as one of the darkest and dirtiest in years.

Political columnist Ezra Klein, in a recent Vox one-off, attributed the “terrifying” rise in aggression to the public’s vacuous interest in Trump’s absurd antics, a trend off of which Trump’s campaign both fed and flourished. In an August column last year, called Trump’s followers “fearful and frustrated”, claiming that the 2016 campaign’s steady decline into chaos was due in large part to a nagging, predictably racist undercurrent among that same supporter base. “Trump’s signature lines,” columnist Evan Osnos wrote, “constitute a bitter mantra in tune with a moment” when anti-government sentiment and distrust in cultural progress seems to have finally met its match. And in that world, Jeb Bush has no role to play.

“Jeb Bush didn’t fit the angry mood of this primary season,” former Obama advisor David Axelrod tweeted on Saturday evening, following the ex-governor’s drop-out speech. “It is a hard, challenging thing to run for POTUS. I don’t agree with [him] on things, but he is a decent and honorable man.”

With his campaign suspension this weekend, Jeb Bush closed shop on an era of Republican civility to which it might not return, should Trump and the fringes of the GOP have their way in November. Visibly emotional in his speech, Bush’s words hearkened back to his own opening statements in June last year, when he promised to run a well-intentioned campaign, of which Republicans could be proud.

“I will run with heart,” Bush said to a crowd of supporters that month. “And I will run to win.”

If nothing else, he might at least say that he did one of those things.

Melanie Schmitz

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Political Journalist, editor. My nappies were flared.