Jeb Bush's humiliating plea: I swear I'm smart

Jeb's pals are very eager to show the media he's not like George. The problem: He's got bigger worries to deal with

Published May 27, 2014 3:48PM (EDT)

  (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Jeb Bush has a dirty little secret that he wants to tell, and he doesn't even care who knows: He's a "geek"! A nerd. He's so silly like that, caring about policy all the time when all everyone else wants to do in life is have a good time.

Such is the message passed off in a weekend New York Times riff on the former Florida governor. It may be the most comically obvious attempt we've seen yet in the 2016 proto-campaign from Jeb's handlers to show that he's not an idiot like his elder brother, the former President Bush. The piece is filled with effusive quotes about how bookish and wonky and smart Jeb Bush is. Rarely is an image-crafting piece so indiscreetly dropped by a politician's handlers. Hell, a reading list is even provided to run alongside the profile to offer even more proof that, yes, the rumors are true, Jeb Bush is literate. And the pace in which he devours middlebrow histories and libertarian at-length ranking and Bill O'Reilly's "Killing ____" books is breathtaking.

The profile is mainly a laundry list of quotes submitted by his supporters.

Friends and former aides have variously described him as a “policy wonk,” an “ideas junkie” and, as Arthur C. Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, called him, “a top-drawer intellect.”...

These days, the younger Mr. Bush peppers his speeches with statistics, academic-sounding references to “quintiles” and self-deprecating jokes about his own geekiness. A few weeks ago, he boasted to a crowd of Republican donors that he was “nerdy enough” to read City Journal, an obscure policy magazine published by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, then recited the names of his favorite writers at the publication.

Aubrey Jewett, who has studied Jeb Bush as a professor of political science at the University of Central Florida, said he “seems to go out of his way to make it clear that he’s different from his brother, by the way he talks about himself, his goals and the details of public policy.”

Well, hot dog, the man knows what "quintile" means! He's "nerdy enough" to read a moderate conservative think tank's journal that aligns closely with his politics. He's the policy wonk, ideas junkie, top-drawer intellect, the Aristotle of the Everglades. No one in history has come even close to being as smart as Jeb Bush. If he has any health issues, it may be that his brain is so full of facts that it could explode somewhere around the fifth year of his presidency. Can he do math, too? Oh, he can do math with the best of them. Perhaps his people also should have provided the Times with raw footage of him doing some light algebra sets before bed, though, just for concrete proof.

Is this really what Jeb's team feels is its biggest political liability? That Jeb is perceived to be stupid, like his brother? Because that's ... misguided. Bush does need to distinguish himself from his brother, but in different ways and to different audiences.

And this piece puts the cart before the horse. Jeb Bush does not need to worry about proving his intellectual bona fides to the more pressing audience, the GOP presidential primary electorate. There's plenty about George W. Bush's legacy that they don't like, but none of it has to do with the popular perception of him as a moron. These are not discerning customers, in that regard. What they do remember negatively about George W. Bush's presidency, and have worked hard to eradicate from their ranks ever since, is his big-government conservatism. In this respect, George and Jeb are nearly identical:

But the bookishness and pragmatism that strike mainstream Republican leaders as virtues highlight the potential difficulty that Mr. Bush may face in igniting the passions of more conservative members of the party.

The questions he grapples with most frequently, and enthusiastically, revolve around improving the effectiveness of government in areas like education, immigration and criminal justice. It is a message unlikely to electrify Tea Party and libertarian wings of his party that are openly hostile to the very idea of government.

Technocratic reform within the education and immigration sectors were two of George W. Bush's top domestic policy priorities, and they appear to hold the same weight within Jeb Bush's heart as well. As long as this is the case, conservative primary voters won't care how many Polk biographies or policy journals Jeb has thumbed through.

But suppose Jeb manages to get through the primaries and win the nomination. It's possible. The Bush clan knows how to win elections in ways that no other Republicans do, and a Jeb Bush candidacy would have plenty of money and donor support to work with. To a general election audience, then, would showing off the smarts be the most effective way for him to distinguish himself from his brother?

It's not clear that George W. Bush's predilection for the gut over the brain, in and of itself, was what got him in trouble with the vast majority of American people by the end of his presidency. The country did elect him two times (well, 1.5) based on this "gut" business. By about 2005-06, though, the country had abandoned him, largely over the Iraq War. That memory lingers. If Jeb wants to distinguish himself from his brother among the 5-10 percent of remaining swing voters in the country, then, he'd be better served denouncing the Iraq War and the willy-nilly interventionist ideology that birthed it. Is he willing to throw his brother under the bus like that? Ehh, probably not.

Jeb Bush will have problems with both primary and general election voter pools if he decides to run for president. And showing off his reading list to the New York Times won't solve any of them.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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