The Jeb! Fails to Awaken

Jeb Bush has vanished. Once the clear choice for Republicans eager to unify their party and regain the White House, John Ellis Bush (rebranded as Jeb!™) has retreated to parts unknown. Only a year ago, Jeb had muscled Mitt Romney out of the way and was drawing in donors at a prodigious rate. The case for Jeb was simple: in a party splintered among competing factions and overzealous supporters, Bush had the mainstream approach, financial backing, and familiar brand everyone could get behind. Instead, he dropped out after finishing behind a number of former afterthoughts and unknowns and now is entirely absent from the chaos currently enveloping the Republican Party. It is a period of civil war.

True, not many foresaw Donald Trump’s improbable rise, but for Trump’s sake(!) Jeb! still won fewer delegates than Ben Carson, the same candidate who hemorrhaged support after his own foreign policy advisor said that efforts to “make him smart” had failed as “nobody has been able to sit down with him and have him get one iota of intelligent information about the Middle East.”  Throughout 2015, Jeb was buried again and again. Meanwhile, his main foil, Mr. Trump, was unrelenting in his scorn for the scion of Republican royalty. Yet throughout this period (and up through the February 20th South Carolina primary), Bush optimistically trudged along and poured millions and millions of dollars into expensive puff pieces and indiscriminate, brutal attack ads on his opponents. All was for naught. His polling was anemic throughout, and his performance in the early states was an historic flop. All of which begs the question whether Jeb Bush misunderstood a key lesson taught by popular culture last year: you can mindlessly and uninspiringly rehash an old story using a familiar brand and an expensive marketing campaign, but only if the original story and brand remain popular. In other words, Jeb Bush is no Star Wars.

We know that Jeb misunderstood this lesson because his proposed solutions to his flailing candidacy so clearly ignored his real deficiencies. Despite the Bush campaign’s continuing malaise, there had been no shortage of speculation that the notoriously poor campaigning of J.E.B. would soon turn around. One article along these lines worth considering in detail came from the New York Times on January 1st. In it, Bush’s brain trust laid out a six-point plan to reignite his campaign: 1) keep attacking Trump, 2) avoid embarrassment in Iowa, 3) succeed in New Hampshire, 4) win Senator Lindsey Graham’s endorsement, 5) use his brother, former President George W. Bush, and 6) continue spending obscene amounts of money. Four prongs of this “strategy” were as hopelessly weak as the campaign’s poll numbers. To begin with, planning to get fourth in Iowa and second in New Hampshire is not manageable simply because it is modest. “Doing well” is not a strategy. Likewise, if the best you can do to achieve that turnaround is to win the endorsement of Lindsey Graham, then that’s truly a “low energy” comeback plan. And as for throwing more money at the problem, Bush should know from his father that change beats more of the same every time.

That left two real strategies from Bush’s vaunted six-point plan—attacking Trump and embracing his family name. The utter failure of these tactics more than any other factor demonstrates why his campaign was an historic flop. The former plan actually wasn’t all bad in theory. Until very recently, Bush was the only candidate willing to take Trump on. For a brief moment, Jeb! even landed a few blows. At a December 15th debate, Bush aggressively attacked Trump as substance-free and dangerous, calling Trump a “chaos candidate” and quipping about Trump’s admission that he received foreign policy advice from “the shows” that he wasn’t sure “if that’s Saturday morning or Sunday morning.” Yet, anyone who watched Bush for months knew he did not have the heart or guts to consistently carry out the strategy. During a moment at a later debate which should have won him plaudits, Bush plaintively requested of Trump regarding his proposed Muslim ban, “I hope you reconsider.” It was painful to watch. Trump offered declarative toughness while Bush thrice pleaded with him to change his mind. Even for those disgusted by Trump’s bluster, it was hard not to take some perverse delight in his utter dismemberment of the entitled Bush campaign and its feeble candidate. Truthfully, Bush was quite possibly the worst foil for Trump imaginable.

Indeed, watching the whole awkward dance unfold, one might conclude that Jeb did not have the hunger for the presidency that his main rivals demonstrated daily. Consider this report by the New York Times from April:

Steak Tips Susanne, the $21 entree at the Hilton Garden Inn in Manchester, N.H., arrived as a carefully composed plate: strips of sirloin, sautéed peppers and caramelized onions atop a bed of linguine with a side of garlic bread. Then the dish underwent the Jeb Bush treatment. The garlic bread was instantly banished to the plate of a nearby aide. The pasta was conspicuously pushed aside. A sympathetic guest at the table, convinced that Mr. Bush, 62, could not possibly be sated, offered him a piece of her salmon. Was it true, the guest asked him, that a stomach shrinks during a diet, easing the pangs of hunger? Not at all, Mr. Bush replied. “I am always hungry,” he said. Jeb Bush is thinking of running for president. And he is starving. As he prepares to challenge an almost universally younger and svelter field of Republican rivals, Mr. Bush has adopted a weight-loss program that is melting away pounds at a staggering rate even as it inflicts an unhappy toll: regular bouts of dietary crankiness.

So, no, Jeb was not about to sustain a red-blooded assault on Trump while constantly craving red meat. The “attack Trump” strategy just did not fit. And without more energetic and emotional performances, he starved for attention.

This left poor Jeb with only one tactic remaining in his bag of tricks: bring back his brother, the former President, and his mother, the former First Lady, and remind everyone that he was a Bush. Herein lies the real source of the Bush campaign’s failure to take hold. To begin with, it completely contradicted the campaign’s efforts over the previous year, during which the candidate tried desperately to separate himself from his family past. This strategy was typified by the much maligned “Jeb!” rebranding. This transparent attempt to remove the “Bush” from the Governor was doomed to fail from the start. Without the Bush name, Jeb is simply a milquetoast former governor who last held elective office before the debut of the iPhone. You are what you are, and no man can outrun his past. But what was doubly incredible about the new packaging was that, as mentioned above, Jeb is not actually Governor Bush’s real name. Rather, the nickname is instead an acronym for his real name, and, of course, the “b” is for “Bush.” Thus, the Governor’s attempt to hide his Bush heritage involved both falsifying his identify and failing to truly distance himself from the Bush name. It is hard to imagine a more inept effort.

The more important reason why the plan to put the Bush back into the Bush campaign was doomed to fail, however, was the reason Jeb! ran away from his name to begin with: George W. Bush utterly destroyed the currency of the family name. His father, George H.W. Bush, built the value of that name by running on the national Republican ticket for four consecutive elections between 1980 and 1992—twice as Ronald Reagan’s vice presidential nominee and then at the top of the ticket for two cycles. Despite his 1992 loss to Bill Clinton, the elder Bush held solid favorability ratings in his post-presidency and a wealth of gratitude and favors earned from the Republican faithful. It was that powerful last name that easily carried his son to the Republican nomination in 2000. After eight years in office, however, George W. Bush left with the lowest approval rating for a president in the history of modern polling. His average approval rating for his entire second term was a dismal 37%, while his approval rating upon leaving office was an unheard of 22%. Mismanagement of the war in Iraq and the response to Hurricane Katrina, an ill-advised attempt to privatize social security, and the meltdown of the entire United States financial system left him deeply unpopular among even Republicans. Perhaps knowing the condition he left the country in, Bush “43” has mostly left the public scene, retiring to Texas to paint.

It was for this very reason that Jeb! rejected his last name and put an exclamation point on his first. It was not until a week before New Hampshire that the campaign rolled out Barbara Bush as a surrogate. His brother made only a token appearance in South Carolina. Jeb desperately needed saving from his family, but knew deep down that they would be of no help. Instead, as Ross Douthat offered at the end of another column speculating about how Jeb might yet be saved, the Bush campaign needed to provide “an affirmative case for why their candidate is the man that voters should fall back on if they sour on their first choices — and they need Jeb himself to find a way to make it.”

But there was no case for Jeb to make other than his name.

That was also the case for J.J. Abrams when he was tasked with making the latest Star Wars film. The entertainment empire had previously earned the ire of its fans by experimenting with its formula (as well as employing more than its fair share of poor screen writing and atrocious acting) during the second trilogy released between 1999 and 2005. George Lucas then sold the rights to Disney, who gave Abrams the responsibility to revive the franchise into a popular success and moneymaking machine. Did he ever. As of this writing, The Force Awakens has grossed more than $2 billion worldwide and won glowing reviews from critics and super fans alike. Amazingly, it did so by blatantly ripping off nearly every aspect of the original Star Wars film from 1977, A New Hope. Even many of the most mundane details were repackaged and served up virtually unchanged. As Douthat wrote shortly after the film came out (Douthat somehow fittingly was the columnist who did some of the best writing on both the phlegmatic Bush campaign and The Force Awakens):

“The Force Awakens” isn’t a return. It isn’t a pastiche or an homage. It’s just a remake. It’s just the same frickin’ movieThere was a moment, right before the attack succeeds, when I thought, wait, maybe it’s going to fail. Maybe Abrams is subverting our expectations, maybe he’s self-aware about how much this feels like a remake, maybe he’s going to blow up the rebel base this time, and leave our heroes to face the reborn Empire without the exact same rebel-alliance infrastructure they had in the original movies. That would have been a good idea. A new idea….Didn’t happen. Instead you just had a busy, cluttered, semi-comprehensible, FX-laden version of the attack and outcome that made this a thrilling, flawless fifteen minutes of cinema almost forty years ago.

So how did The Force Awakens succeed despite being about as imaginative as a lobotomy patient? Because people will keep coming back for more of a product they like, regardless of whether it is the same bland thing they’ve had before. Pizza is not going away anytime soon. The Force Awakens delivered the Stars Wars that people enjoyed, the reason why they came to the theatre in the first place, never mind is hackneyed themes and regurgitated plot. In many ways, Jeb ran the Star Wars of campaigns—bloated, formulaic, tired, and mass-produced. The key difference is that people actually like Star Wars. It evokes nostalgia, not antipathy. As much as he wanted to be Jeb!, he was really just another Bush. The Force Awakens had the luxury of falling back on past success. Poor Jeb! did not.

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