Jeb Bush is this bad at winning primaries: Why his South Carolina game plan won't unseat Donald Trump

It was in South Carolina that his dad and brother used dirty tricks to defang their rivals. Jeb? Not so much

By Heather Digby Parton


Published February 11, 2016 1:00PM (EST)

Jeb  Bush (Reuters/Rick Wilking)
Jeb Bush (Reuters/Rick Wilking)

With the losses last week of Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Rand Paul in the wake of the Iowa caucuses, and now Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie after New Hampshire, the GOP clown bus has been traded in for a nice sedan and the whole troop has moved down to South Carolina.

If past Republican primaries in the Palmetto state are anything to go by, we are in for some fireworks.

Everyone no doubt recalls that in 1988 George H.W. Bush had a notorious campaign manager from South Carolina by the name of Lee Atwater. He had been a consultant for both winning Reagan campaigns who specialized in dirty tricks; by 1988 he was ready for the big time. He's probably best known for the Willie Horton ad (which he didn't produce but which had his fingerprints all over it). Much more important, however, was his creation of what became known as the South Carolina Firewall.

As Earl and Merle Black's book "The Vital South" recounts, Atwater understood that his home state's political culture was so traditional and machine-dominated that it would inevitably support the conservative party establishment's choice for president. Therefore, the party would schedule the South Carolina primary immediately after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, where reform-minded candidates often appealed to more independent electorates, thus stopping them before they could really gain traction.

He first put this strategy into effect on behalf of the presumptive nominee, Bush senior, in that 1988 campaign. Bush lost Iowa to Bob Dole, and came uncomfortably close to losing in New Hampshire, so Atwater turned Bush into a Holy Roller, gathered every establishment figure in the state and went ruthlessly negative. It worked. Bush won handily and went on to destroy all comers on Super Tuesday. South Carolina became the state where insurgencies were strangled in their cribs.

Atwater died in 1991, but his strategy has remained in place ever since. In 1996, when Pat Buchanan took New Hampshire and threatened to win with his nativist pitchfork army, it was Bob Dole's turn to use the firewall and Atwater's machine to stop him. But it was most famously employed in service of the Bush family once again in 2000, when George W. Bush had every establishment player in the party lined up and then John McCain unexpectedly trounced him in New Hampshire by nearly 20 points. McCain was a darling of the political press corps, holding court all hours of the day and night, generously allowing the boys on the bus to bathe in his macho "authenticity." He was a serious threat.

Bush's campaign manager, of course, was Karl Rove, who studied at the knee of Atwater and was well schooled in his dark arts. They unloaded everything they had on McCain, including whisper campaigns about his adopted daughter from Bangladesh being a "black baby," along with harshly negative ads and a full court press from the political establishment. Once again it worked. McCain never knew what hit him. (It didn't stop him from hiring the same smear merchants for his own campaign eight years later.)

Now it's 16 years later and the Bush family is back in South Carolina. And his supporters seem to think that even though he has been down in the polls for months, finished at the bottom of the pack in Iowa and took a fourth place finish in New Hampshire, that the firewall will work one more time.

Per USA Today:

“He needed to be in the game, and last night, he was able to do so,” said Barry Wynn, a former South Carolina Republican Party chairman, who is raising money for Bush. Although Donald Trump tops GOP polls in the Palmetto State, Wynn denounced the billionaire’s “Kardashian-style vulgarity.”

“I don’t think that sells as well in the South, as it does in New England,” he said. “You may find that South Carolina corrects some of the mistakes of New Hampshire.”

We know what kind of "corrections" those tend to be, don't we?

Bush has a bit more of a challenge than his father and brother in that he is facing two insurgents, the Trump juggernaut and the Ted Cruz evangelical revival tour. So what's his plan? Well, according to Politico:

Jeb Bush is already laying the groundwork for a brutal South Carolina campaign against establishment rivals John Kasich and Marco Rubio.

In an internal memo circulated late Tuesday evening, the campaign distributed talking points to top campaign aides and surrogates, highlighting lines of attack they plan to take against both candidates.

The memo suggests that Kasich, who campaigned extensively in New Hampshire, does not have a realistic path to winning the Republican nomination.

“Governor Kasich has little to no chance in South Carolina, and does not have a national organization that can compete,” the memo says. “Kasich has consistently supported gutting the military and has no viable path in the Palmetto State.”

The memo also outlines hard-hitting avenues of attack against Rubio, who for months has been in Bush’s crosshairs: “Senator Rubio has lost momentum and has been exposed as completely unprepared to be president,” it says, repeating an argument that Bush has used frequently against Rubio.

It adds: “Rubio has demonstrated no respect for the nomination process and expects this to be a coronation.”

He was quoted in the Washington Post confirming that report:

Asked by reporters what he thought of the results, Bush said that New Hampshire voters "pushed the pause button. The coronation after a third-place finish — looks like they canceled it. So, everybody’s going to have to make their case. It’s kind of a re-validation of what the primaries are about. I’m excited about being here. The field will likely narrow and as it narrows, we’ll have more of a consolidation as it always has been."

That's right. Bush is going to waste more time and money going after two flaccid rivals who are just as dead in the water as he is instead of employing the family's tried and true method to destroy the insurgent threat with the Atwater strategy. Kasich has no chance of winning in ruthless arch-conservative South Carolina with his Sunny Optimist™ gambit and Rubio is a walking punchline.

Perhaps this is some kind of a head fake and this is an elaborate misdirection to take trump and Cruz off their game. But frankly, considering that Bush has spent more than 50 million dollars to win four delegates, it's hard to imagine that his sad sack campaign is capable of anything quite that Machiavellian.

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The South Carolina Republican machine seems eager to take on Trump, so maybe they'll do the job for him. Perhaps Cruz's personality will finally be too unpalatable even to evangelicals. But unless he's a lot better at all this than he appears, Bush will apparently not be engaged with that effort. He's abandoning the firewall strategy and is simply going to keep doing what he's been doing: trying to clear the establishment field so he can be the alternative to Trump or Cruz somewhere down the line. Even here, in the place where his father and his brother vanquished their rivals, he will not face down the insurgent threats.

Jeb Bush apparently doesn't subscribe to the notion that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over again in hopes of a different result. If these reports are true, his strategy is crazy.

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By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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