Jeb Bush Should Drop Out Right Now

We are (still!) over a month away from the official beginning of the primary season and 11 months away from the general election. As longtime political observers will remind us, nothing really matters now. The play-by-play election coverage of 2015 has been mostly entertainment, as primaries are typically decided within a few weeks of voting time (once normal people decide to pay attention), and polls are not predictive at this point.

But sometimes the pre-primary polls do matter. Witness the enormous consequences of their fluctuations since the beginning of 2015. Three major GOP candidates – experienced governors who were at one point either presidential frontrunners or conservative rising stars – have dropped out.[1] Meanwhile, a new candidate descended a golden escalator and made the transition from the Kim Kardashian of business to GOP frontrunner.

The most striking collapse has been that of the once-inevitable John Ellis “GOB” Bush. Recall at this point last year that Bush had announced his exploratory committee for president and effectively muscled out former Republican standard-bearer Mitt Romney from a third run. Pundits knew the GOP would have a deep bench in 2016, but the smart money said that it would play out like 2012: the moderate governor with insider connections (even more insider-y than Romney’s) would work overtime time raking in cash and endorsements, and similarly win through a campaign of pure attrition.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Bush has remained mired in the single digits for months now.

In light of this persistent struggling in the polls, I believe that Jeb Bush’s Christmas gift to America and the Republican Party should be to join these other governors in dropping out of the race. His campaign has self-destructed, and he was never a particularly good candidate to begin with. Most importantly, the Republican field needs to winnow much more quickly if the party wants to win in 2016.

True, a Bush dropout would be shocking given his earlier “inevitability,” even extreme since there is still time for him to plausibly make a comeback, and unlikely while he has the money to simply outlast most of the other candidates. But the inescapable fact is that if anybody who wants a winnable, solidly conservative candidate to become the nominee – or even a nominee like Jeb Bush without all the unfortunate flaws that come with actual Jeb Bush – should want him out too.

The most obvious gain to losing Bush would be losing that name. Under most circumstances, this would be the least important aspect of a candidate’s profile. Even the former Bush presidents, though both establishmentarians with moderate views on some major issues, differed greatly in temperament, qualifications, and governing style.[2] The Bush name, fairly or not, casts an even larger shadow over Jeb’s campaign.

After 12 combined years, Americans have serious Bush fatigue. A third Bush presidency would signal an unprecedented dynastic trend in American politics that voters will not go for, particularly when the last Bush left with historically low approval ratings. Jeb’s last name provides him with instant recognition, but mostly for the decisions of his politically damaged brother. The one positive thing his name has provided is lots of money and insider connections, which do not seem to be helping.

Thus, in distinguishing the two, his supporters have taken care to hype Jeb as “the smarter Bush brother” – the one who should have and would have become president in 2001 if not for losing his first race in Florida the same year George won in Texas. Yet the would-be Bush 45 has clumsily doubled down on the most unpopular aspects of 43’s record. He has not only defended the Iraq War, but said he would have supported it even if he had known Saddam Hussein had no WMDs. Even as Bush’s retains serious foreign policy advisors from Republican administrations dating back to Reagan, he is taking major cues from neoconservative architects of the Iraq War like Paul Wolfowitz.

Considering Bush as his own candidate does not make him much more appealing. Conservatives need no convincing: he has been one of the foremost Republican advocates for amnesty for illegal immigrants and defenders of federal initiatives like Obama’s Common Core program. He is a pre-Obama conservative who is utterly out of place in today’s post-Tea Party GOP, which demands small government as a consistent principle rather than a talking point to be shed later in the name of political expediency. Since leaving office ten years ago, and until running for president, he has been better known for dismissing his party’s base than speaking out against Democrats.

On the campaign trail, Jeb’s performance as a candidate is even worse. The “smarter Bush” has already handed opponents multiple awkward, tone-deaf, and selectively Trump-esque comments. Speaking of Trump, Bush’s debate clashes against the mogul have also revealed a weak, feckless candidate. Time and again, Bush has launched into a pre-planned attack on Trump, who responded with some immature, but amusing retort, and Bush promptly backed down.

The latest debate has been an exception, with Bush persisting in his attacks like plucky underdog. It was certainly satisfying as hell to watch him induce a Trump tantrum. But it should not take a potential president several months to learn how to stand up to himself – and dealing with Vladimir Putin is much tougher than with a rodeo clown like Trump. This truth has contributed to Bush’s poll collapse after his repeated public embarrassments.

Okay, you may think, Bush has had a rough time. He might not be the most talented politician, but he is probably the safest the Republicans have to offer. He is experienced, competent, and has crucial swing state and Hispanic appeal. However, for each of Bush’s strengths, there are other establishment-ready candidates that can match or exceed them.

Do you want an experienced, moderate governor who appeals to independents and Democrats? Take your pick between Christie and Kasich. Both are easily tougher than Bush, and have won two terms in a deep blue state and vital swing state, respectively. They also have broader government experience than Bush – Christie as a federal prosecutor who matches Bush’s toughness on foreign policy and terrorism, and Kasich as a wonkish member of Congress who helped balance the federal budget. While neither is particularly appealing to conservatives, they still beat Bush.

The best establishment candidate is Marco Rubio, who embodies everything that his mentor Bush wants his campaign to be: intelligent, optimistic, and Hispanic. He has the same swing state appeal as Bush with the added benefit of being an exceptional communicator. Although lacking in executive experience, Rubio has served as Speaker of the Florida House, which shields him from accusations that he is an Obama-like neophyte. Best of all, Rubio is quite conservative (Gang of Eight aside), and, as a former Tea Party favorite who managed to defeat a former governor in a tough three-way election, he combines a solidly electable pedigree with his conservatism. He would be the perfect contrast to Hillary Clinton.

By contrast, imagine Jeb Bush in a general election. A Bush vs. Clinton redux of 1992 would not inspire voters to come out and vote Republican. In the battle of names, Clinton has the upper hand: reminding voters of a popular former president associated with strong economic growth, a balanced federal budget, and relative political moderation (despite her own increasingly leftist tendencies).

Bush, on the other hand, inherited his name from a one-term president and is the brother of an unpopular and polarizing one. Though he tries to base his campaign on a forward-thinking, inspiration message (besides his more petulant moments when things are not going his way), he is not a fresh face. Bush and Clinton are both sexagenarian grandparents with broad support from big money insiders and are seen as competent but inept at campaigning. Basically every potential weak point for Clinton – her age, her unpopularity, her association with the past – would be nullified against Bush.

The most pressing reason for Bush to drop out is that he would accomplish something far greater than by staying in: saving the GOP. Insiders are confident that Trump will not get the nomination, but are increasingly wary. Even if he stays between his natural floor and ceiling of support between 20-35% indefinitely, that will be enough to win primaries in a divided field. More drop outs lead to more consolidation of the non-Trump vote. Given his lousy candidacy and the amount of insider support and money he is tying up, Bush should be first on that list.

With Bush gone, there will be one less hated establishment candidate to serve as a foil for Trump. And make no mistake, he is hated. Bush’s favorability and “would not vote for” numbers are remarkably similar to Trump’s – who can at least point to his position in the polls. Trump supporters justify their support for the bizarre outsider by pointing to Bush as the example of how the establishment cannot be trusted.

With the chances gone of Bush being foisted upon the party, they can claim victory for taking down an establishment favorite – à la John Boehner – and feel free to move on. With Bush gone, Trump’s insults will probably just move onto the next candidate. But there are plenty of other candidates who can handle it far better than Jeb Bush.

[1] Lindsey Graham has never mattered in presidential politics.

[2] Bush 41 was seen as the more moderate alternative to Reagan in 1980, and Bush 43, while being more conservative with broader appeal in the party, advocated for a brand of “compassionate conservatism” that called for larger federal involvement in education and health care, as well as amnesty for illegal immigrants – sound familiar?

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