Across the Republican establishment, numerous funders and party fathers are scratching their heads: How did the Jeb Bush campaign go so wrong? His father and brother managed not only to win the party’s nomination but to get elected president – twice, in the case of a brother supposedly less sharp than Jeb -- and huge gobs of post-Citizens United money were ready to line up behind him. He’d been the popular governor of an electorally important state and had a reputation, in a sea of inexperienced and outrageous candidates, of being a grown-up.
The nomination seemed to be Jeb’s to lose. And that’s what he seems to be doing.
But why? There’s been some talk about a poorly run campaign, whose latest slogan seems to be “Jeb Can Fix It!” Donald Trump has described Bush as being a low-energy candidate despite the exclamation mark that often follows his name. Some observers think the tone of the GOP is too fiercely anti-incumbent to elect someone from an established political family.
A new book, though, proves beyond a shadow of a doubt what the root of the problem is. Jeb may be a decent guy, a real family man, and apparently quite a responsive governor. But he’s also one of the dullest human beings who’s ever lived, and his sense of what people are interested in is amazingly tone-deaf.
That’s what we’re learning from the new “Reply All: A Governor's Story 1999-2007,” which is even less interesting than it sounds. Instead of a real portrait of Jeb’s years leading the state of Florida – which surely had its share of conflict and drama and assertion of principle – this is a collection of email exchanges. And not exchanges with, say, Bret Easton Ellis or a teenage Lena Dunham or political rivals, but with random citizens who write in to give him advice or to seek help on tiny matters. Jeb says he spent as much as 30 hours a week reading and sending emails to constituents. If the exchanges collected in “Reply All” are typical of what that was like, it’s amazing he was able to keep his eyes open.
The book even manages to live down to its tedious title.
The book starts with some words from his wife, Columba, then a bit from Jeb, and then pretty quickly readers get nine pages identifying popular acronyms. (NCN means National Broadcasting Co.; PSA means public service announcement ... You still with me?)
One of the subjects Jeb gets turned on by is the need to have a really good website. Here’s the note he sent to his communications director.
"Cory, we have raised the bar and each day of doing nothing, we are not reaching it. If the campaign had the best web page in the country, why shouldn’t the Governor’s office?"
Jeb comes back to this a little later, and it’s still hard to get excited about:
"We need a major upgrade. When will I see the plan to upgrade our web page and how long will it take. How will it be interactive with the rest of Florida. I believe it should be the leader in the nation. If you disagree come and tell me why. If you agree, help me make it so. Jeb"
And pages later: “I think we should ask that each secretary review their web pages to see how they can be more user friendly, how they reflect our priorities and how we can use the web page better than we do now.”
When there’s energy in these exchanges, it always comes from someone else. Like this one:
From: Michael P. Wargin
DON’T MESS WITH OUR RIGHTS !!!!
DON’T MESS WITH THE ADA !!!
KEEP THE MOST INTEGRATED SETTINGS !!!!
PLEASE HELP KEEP OUR FAMILY AND OTHERS LIKE OURS TOGETHER. HELP US AFFORD TO KEEP OUR FAMILIES TOGETHER
Here’s Jeb’s reply, in its entirety:
"Thanks for your letter. We are soon to propose a plan that I believe will accomplish the objectives that you desire."
What reader wouldn’t be glad to have that revealing look into Jeb’s thinking and governing style?
Alongside frequent misspellings and an oddly random use of “quote marks,” there's almost three pages on a baseball that went through a screen by a swimming pool.
One of the few exchanges that’s about an issue of political heft – the appearance of controversial anti-affirmative action figure Ward Connerly – is almost as dull. When a Floridian writes in arguing that Jeb should have embraced Connerly and his campaign against “reverse racism” more fully, Jeb comes back with: “Unlike others in Tallahassee, I met with him and was respectful of him. I believe that the issue of discrimination can and should be dealt with in means Other than the initiative process.”
Jeb talks about accomplishments he’s proud of – stopping a bullet train, signing a large tax cut – but there’s not much discussion of political philosophy or anything else potential presidential voters are curious about. A few scattered descriptions of conservative boilerplate – government should be restrained, unions are dangerous, we need vouchers for public schools – appear briefly, but don’t go much of anywhere.
You don’t have to be a political conservative to want Jeb to bite down on these issues a bit more intensely or express some passion somewhere. But he prefers to stick to subjects where everyone agrees – and that tell us nearly nothing about him. When fellow Floridian Jimmy Buffett writes in, his prose is almost lively by comparison.
Instead of a digital-age version of a memoir or a selected-letters volume – the kind of book that gives you a deeper sense of a pol than sound bites or public appearances can offer – this delivers almost nothing of substance. “Reply All” is so blandly civil and small-bore in its concerns as to be largely personality free.
If you, like me, wondered why GOP voters were so excited when Trump leapt into the race, read “Reply All" and wonder no longer.