GOPocalypse, Part 3: The Rightful Heir
This is the third article in a five-part series on the 2016 GOP nomination.
Jeb Bush is the Republican official who, in the end, had the best chance to stop Donald Trump from being the nominee.
It was very clear early on that the mood of the Republican base was anti-establishment. This was not news; Ben Smith identified this way back in 2014:
The notion that Jeb Bush is going to be the Republican presidential nominee is a fantasy nourished by the people who used to run the Republican Party. Bush has been out of a game that changed radically during the 12 years(!) since he last ran for office. He missed the transformation of his brother from Republican savior to squish; the rise of the tea party; the molding of his peer Mitt Romney into a movement conservative; and the ascendancy of a new generation of politicians — Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, among them — who have been fully shaped by and trained in that new dynamic. Those men occasionally, carefully, respectfully break with the movement. Scorning today’s Republican Party is, by contrast, the core of Jeb’s political identity.
One potential pivot point takes us back to 2014. A measured, dispassionate evaluation of the electoral context could have encouraged Jeb to sit this one out. It could have been clear that the man and the moment simply didn’t match. Back in the halcyon days of 2015, it was not yet apparent that Hillary Clinton would be such an unpopular nominee; her favorability ratings were decent, and her husband’s intervention in the 2012 campaign may well have been decisive in Obama’s favor. Meanwhile, Jeb’s older brother had presided over a widely-loathed presidency. Ceteris paribus, a Clinton/Bush race was implicitly a contest between the 1990s and the 2000s, which was a surrender of any structural advantage the GOP would have had by attempting to “turn the page” and capitalize on people’s desire for a “change.”
Instead, Jeb charged on, focusing on a “shock and awe” strategy of fundraising. He ran a sort of pseudo-campaign for months where he hadn’t fully entered the race while aggressively raking in money. By April 2015, Jeb was touting an enormous fundraising haul. By July, it was clear what that meant:
The Republican front-runner’s Right to Rise super PAC, which will take on an unprecedented role in tandem with his presidential campaign, announced on Thursday that it has banked $103 million in the past six months, exceeding its own ambitious goal of $100 million.
The group has $98 million in cash and is unlikely to truly begin spending its massive war chest until the end of the year, according to multiple sources.
Jeb Bush raised over $100 million. 1 This had two effects. One was that it represented a golden opportunity to define the candidate and the candidate’s opponents. The other was that it crowded out other candidates, many of whom would have used the same fundraisers to build their own profiles. (This harmed Rubio most, who would have relied on many of the same Florida donors.)
What became clear, though, was that the normal course of action was not going to work in 2015. Jeb Bush’s favorable ratings and poll standing plummeted as voters got to know him better. On July 9, 2015, when Jeb announced Right to Rise’s haul, he was at 16.3 percent in the polling. By the end of October of 2015, Right to Rise had spent $46 million. The result? Jeb had dropped to 6.6 percent in the polling. More ominous were his favorability ratings. According to Monmouth University polling, Jeb had a 50-30 favorable/unfavorable split as of July. By October, he had dropped to 37-44. All that spending had done nothing for Jeb.
So Right to Rise went after other candidates. According to ProPublica, by February 2016, Right to Rise had spent almost $35 million against Rubio. They had spent over $20 million against Kasich. They had spent almost $15 million against Christie. And they had spent less than $5 million against Trump, and less than $50,000 exclusively against Trump; Mike Murphy, the head of Right to Rise, famously noted back in August 2015 that Trump was “other people’s problem.” Any hope for a establishment alternative got carpet-bombed.
Conservatives have taken to blaming Murphy for this. But this is unfair, as commentator Liam Donovan notes. The SuperPACs cannot be controlled by the candidate, of course, except in one way: the candidate can quit. Jeb could have dropped out in September and October, when it was clear that he was simply not connecting. The only way to stop the carnage was to quit. Instead, his campaign shouted, “Damn the torpedos, full speed ahead!”
Bush, then, could have read the writing on the wall, dropped out in October, and offered his support to Marco Rubio, his one-time protege and ideological fellow-traveler. Bush could have been a senior advisor to Rubio, essentially using a well-timed endorsement and his rolodex to extract any policy commitment he wanted. 2 More importantly, he could have stopped the barrage of ads from Right to Rise that harmed Rubio’s favorable ratings, and perhaps kept him from squeaking out a close second place finish in Iowa.
Instead, Bush soldiered on, holding out all the way until South Carolina. His best showing was a paltry 11 percent in New Hampshire.
The story of Jeb Bush in 2015 and 2016 is tragic in many ways: he was probably the most qualified man in the field to be president, and he attracted some very capable and influential allies in the Republican Party en route to building a stellar campaign operation. In the end, Jeb ended up preventing a true challenger from emerging to stop Trump. It’s obvious that this would have been difficult to see in the moment, but the party–and the country–would have been better off if he had. 3
Image by Gage Skidmore
- Counterintuitively, I contend that Jeb’s enormous early fundraising haul hurt him, by becoming a sore spot among the more populist Republican base. “Oh, Wall Street loves Jeb Bush. Screw those guys.” Really, if you want to blame someone, blame Bush’s megadonors, who should have known better. It would have been easier to quit in October with $2 million in the bank than with $50 million.
- We know, for example, that Jeb cares deeply about education. He could’ve gotten a promise to be Rubio’s “education czar.”
- An amusing thought experiment: everyone would have resented a Bush/Clinton race because of the dynastic element and because we wouldn’t have known about the alternative. Imagine the Takes and thinkpieces! I would have written one. Those worries seem positively quaint today.