While Hillary Clinton's campaign shows how much she's come to embrace the new politics of the 21st century, the Bush family appears to be stubbornly stuck in the 90s. Or at least Jeb Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush are. The New York Times ran two pieces over the weekend that laid out exactly how out-of-touch the Bushes are with modern day conservatism, which is especially ironic when you consider how much the Bush family set the template for exploiting the rage issues of the fundamentalist, modernity-rejecting white populists to win elections. But the monkeys have taken over the zoo, and the Bushes simply don't know what to do.
Things are not looking good for the Jeb Bush campaign, which laid off workers and cut salaries this weekend to get a 40 percent reduction in payroll. The campaign, as campaigns will do, tried to spin this as a good thing, of course, but Bush let his rage at the voters for not just handing him the nomination by birthright slip out at a town hall in South Carolina.
“I’ve got a lot of really cool things I could do other than sit around, being miserable, listening to people demonize me and me feeling compelled to demonize them," the New York Times reported Bush saying. "That is a joke. Elect Trump if you want that.”
Anyone who has rejected a come-on only to have your suitor sneer that he didn't want you anyway will recognize the behavior. It is, in a word, entitled. The problem is, as anyone who has watched the furor of the House Speakership can attest, not a year when conservatives aren't really feeling the whole entitled politicians thing. Way to feed your opponent's narrative about you, Jeb.
But this was no fluke, as this other New York Times piece about Jeb's father, George H.W. Bush, demonstrates. The elder Bush comes across as angry and perplexed that the electorate doesn't just hand his son the presidency already. But what is really amazing is this quote from John Sununu, who was chief of staff for Bush in the late 80s and early 90s.
“I have no feeling for the electorate anymore,” Sununu told the New York Times. “It is not responding the way it used to. Their priorities are so different that if I tried to analyze it I’d be making it up.”
The comment feels like a bit of historical revisionism, because the reality is that H.W. Bush does, in fact, know what gets the conservative base moving. Let us recall that the first Bush ran for President in 1980, only to lose to Ronald Reagan, who ran a campaign directly appealing to the religious right and people who were still embittered about desegregation.
Bush learned his lesson and would never let that happen again. After all, the Bush family were early and enthusiastic supporters of Planned Parenthood. Bush himself was such a family planning enthusiast that his nickname in Congress was "Rubbers". But he ended up declaring himself anti-abortion, collecting the evangelical vote in 1988. Similarly, his 1988 campaign was famously big on race-baiting, running the racially loaded "Willie Horton" ad against his Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis.
And let's just note that George W. Bush knew all about how to reach out to white populist conservatives. The reality is that the Bush family knows exactly who the "electorate" is. They've been pandering to this crowd for votes for decades now. The only thing that's changed is that the people that they used to use for votes are now running the party. They are sick of being told to behave themselves and vote for the old guard Republicans, in hopes that they'll get a few anti-choice, anti-affirmative action judges on the bench. The division between the party leaders and the hoi polloi has been breaking down for years now, with rabid true believers winning office more and more often.
The wing nuts are the same people they've always been: Easily baited, moved more by culture war issues than dry policy discussion, and imagining themselves less as compromise-oriented politicians than as fierce warriors who are trying to hold back a tide of liberalism and modernity. The only difference now is they are running the show, and people like Jeb Bush are artifacts.
The Bushes have been using the wing nut base for decades, but perhaps they have never stopped for a moment to put themselves in the shoes of their followers. If they did, maybe they would see why conservative voters are so angry right now. In the early days of the 2012 primary, conservative voters showed a lot of enthusiasm for fringe candidates, just like they are doing now. But they sucked it up, did what the party elite told them, and nominated Mitt Romney, a pure establishment guy. And he lost anyway.
If you were them, it's easy to see how you might conclude that compromise is therefore not the solution and instead go with your gut to elect the demagogue candidate, Donald Trump, that reminds you of the loud-mouthed talk radio show hosts you loves so much. This is a wrong conclusion on the part of the base, as national elections are hard to win when you're only pandering to a small group of hardline conservatives. But they tried it the establishment way, so it's easy how they might think it's time for a change.