Jeb Bush's breathtaking campaign implosion: How a GOP front-runner became the "please clap" candidate

Remember when Jeb was supposed to be a shoo-in for the nomination? Oh, how the mighty have fallen

By Bob Cesca
Published February 4, 2016 4:15PM (EST)
Jeb  Bush (Reuters/Rick Wilking)
Jeb Bush (Reuters/Rick Wilking)

Back in 2006, former President George H.W. Bush addressed Florida state lawmakers during the last of his son Jeb's leadership gatherings in the lower chamber of the Legislature. During the speech, Poppy Bush broke down sobbing while recalling how Jeb lost his first 1994 gubernatorial bid to the Democratic candidate, Lawton Chiles.

Said the patriarch of the Bush dynasty, "He didn't whine about it. He didn't complain." Bush continued through his tears and crackling voice, "A true measure of a man is how you handle victory and how you handle defeat, so in '94 Floridians chose to rehire the governor. They took note of his worthy opponent, who showed with not only words but with actions what decency he had."

By all measures, Jeb Bush has all but lost his first and perhaps only campaign for the White House, and must now be flirting with the inevitability of dropping out of the race entirely unless his electoral fortunes change drastically. They won't, and it's surprisingly depressing to observe the sad, slow descent of Jeb Bush from presumptive front-runner to droopy beta-male. It probably shouldn't be this way, but Jeb's suddenly outdated style of politics has been rendered impotent by Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. And, frankly, I think we're going to miss the Jeb Bushes of the world.

I hasten to underscore that his positions are mostly loathsome, as is his older brother George W., who's responsible for bungling us into two wars and a crippling financial crisis. Suffice to say, this isn't any sort of paean to Jeb's agenda or his record as governor. Far from it. But Jeb, along with his dad, represent a dying breed of Republican. In this regard, watching Jeb awkwardly skulk through retail politicking in Iowa and New Hampshire is not unlike watching an endangered sea turtle flailing desperately on the beach -- confused and pained, tourists splashing Solo cups of water on his head.

On Tuesday, following his dreary showing in Iowa, Jeb spoke to a small crowd at the Hanover Inn in New Hampshire. During a high point in his remarks, Jeb once again tried in futility to accost his nemesis, Trump, exclaiming: "I won’t be out here blowharding, talking a big game without backing it up."


Indeed, the New York Times described the crowd's reaction as "total silence."

Then, as if to amplify his newly ordained role as the official GOP presidential sad-sack, the beached sea turtle begged, he added:

"Please clap."

In hindsight, Jeb Bush's actual campaign slogan might as well have been: "Jeb! Please clap." Indeed, nothing else has successfully defined his campaign for president more than those two words.

Bush's rarely sated thirst for acceptance and respect has been a running theme through most of his campaign, and especially during the conga line of televised GOP debates. During those excruciatingly long political game shows, it's been painfully obvious that the political universe has left Jeb behind, while Trump has turned the Bush dynasty's favorite son into a 90-pound weakling. No matter what he says, no matter what tactic he and his advisers roll out as another pointed jab against Trump, the New York reality show star somehow manages to effortlessly dodge then castrate Jeb before one record-setting television audience after another, to a point where even liberal Bush-family haters have found themselves rooting for Jeb out of sympathy. Time after time, Jeb has almost unknowingly walked directly into the Trump machine's propeller blades, only to be expertly julienned by the front-runner -- all while that deflated "awww man, not again" expression washes across his familiar mug. Even the timing of Trump's campaign announcement on the day after Jeb's announcement totally stepped on his thunder.

Every time he stepped right onto Trump's bear traps, Jeb invariably disintegrated into the bedraggled stagehand character played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Boogie Nights" -- scolding himself behind his crying-on-the-inside sad-clown face. The rest of us wondering to ourselves, How the hell can "the smart one" allow himself to walk right into it, over and over again?

On top of being a political dinosaur in the reality-show media landscape that passes for serious campaigning these days, Jeb, of course, had several key obstacles working against him from the beginning.

First, political dynasties in the United States rarely extend beyond two, at least in terms of the presidency. There's John and John Quincy. Teddy and Franklin. Bush 41 and Bush 43. Perhaps Bill and Hillary. American voters can accept two, but never three. And the Bush family definitely isn't cut out to be the exception. Therefore, adding a "Bush 45" to the menu was a historical long-shot from the start, even though it was well-acknowledged that Jeb was the best skilled heir to his father's legacy and that Bush 43 was a glitch along the way. In fact, when Poppy openly sobbed during his Florida remarks, many of us hypothesized that he lamented the ascent of George W., rather than Jeb, coming as it did during perhaps the lowest point in W's presidency.

Furthermore, Jeb mistakenly thought that by being a known commodity with a massive war chest, he could simply coast to the nomination on his name and his establishment cred as the smarter and more presidential Bush boy. No one fully understood at the time how Election 2016 would become the clown show with the entrance of Trump. I mean, many of us expected the clowns, but not like this. Not this level of insanity. Not even record-breaking fundraising could extricate Jeb from the GOP clownscape. He spent roughly $2,800 for every vote he received in the Iowa caucus, and it still wasn't anywhere near enough.

So far, Jeb has raised $135 million, more than any other candidate from either party, and it's still not enough to put Humpty together again.

We've obviously drilled through another rock layer in American politics, descending blindly and ever deeper into the unknown. Appearing "presidential" is nearly irrelevant now, especially in the face of novelty candidates capable of producing endless content for viral Facebook memes, who offer lofty promises such as Christian theocracy (Cruz) and "big beautiful walls" (you know who), in the absence of rational policy proposals. Assembling a comprehensive series of workable positions while assembling a wise old team of GOP policy advisers, as Jeb has, is pointless today, unless the candidate is prepared to ignore sage advice in lieu of pandering to the inchoate derangement of his or her base.

And finally, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention the poisonous taint of the Bush name that still exists seven years after Bush 43 moved back to Texas to paint his pictures.

So, what's next for Jeb? As George H.W. Bush said back in ‘06, it’s all about how he handles defeat.

Given the money he's raised, Jeb could probably end up waiting out the rest of the field to eventually end up in third place or something similar. Call it campaigning by attrition. But regardless of what Jeb does between now and the summer, it's a foregone conclusion that he'll be viewed as the last of a dying breed -- the old-school political schlub whom everyone felt sorry for. In this regard, maybe he deserves a round of applause for eschewing Trump-style trolling and, at the very least, taking the process more seriously when so many of his colleagues don't. Please, by all means, clap.

Bob Cesca

Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon. He's also the host of "The Bob Cesca Show" podcast, and a weekly guest on both the "Stephanie Miller Show" and "Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang." Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Contribute through LaterPay to support Bob's Salon articles -- all money donated goes directly to the writer.


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Elections 2016 Gop Primary Jeb Bush