One-time frontrunner Jeb Bush had a very underwhelming performance during the second Republican presidential debate. He fumbled well-rehearsed attack lines and displayed a forced grin through most of the three-hour extravaganza.
The most revealing bit, though, came apart from the actual debate, when all the candidates got together for a photo op.
Bush is already the tallest candidate in the GOP field. Nonetheless, he sports a smirky, Cheshire Cat-like grin as if he’s just pulled off a really cool trick.
It is not a trick performed by adults, or by people brimming with confidence, though.
One often gets the feeling that Bush’s campaign is more about his own family dynamics rather than a burning desire to lead the country.
Bush spends a lot of time talking about the process of campaigning for President. In December last year, in a wide-ranging interview with the Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib, Bush said that one of the questions he was pondering before he got into the race was, “do I have the skills to do it in a way that lifts people’s spirits and not get sucked into the vortex?”
The “vortex,” apparently was the rough-and-tumble terrain of a primary campaign against non-Bush rivals for the Republican nomination. Bush elaborated:
I kinda know how a Republican can win, whether it’s me or somebody else — and it has to be much more uplifting, much more positive, much more wiling to be, ‘Lose the primary to win the general’ without violating your principles. It’s not an easy task, to be honest with you.
Its an odd premise to begin a campaign for the Republican nomination and, ultimately, the White House. Obviously, primary and general elections have different tones and, often, a separate set of issues that frame the campaign. The notion, though, that the two elections require two different positions is wrong-headed. If one can’t articulate a coherent message that wins the support of a party’s base voters, it is almost impossible that the candidate would fare better in a wider, general election.
The idea that a Republican candidate could be unappealing to Republican voters but a winner with the broader electorate is a myth perpetuated by the GOP establishment. It can’t be stated enough that Jeb’s father, George H.W. Bush, was recruited to run for President in 1980 because the D.C. establishment worried that Ronald Reagan couldn’t be elected in a general election.
Bush the Elder even coined the term “voodoo economics” to criticize Reagan’s supply-side economic agenda of lower taxes to spur growth during that campaign. The fear, it seems, was that Reagan’s simplistic plan would win the primaries but lose the general.
Fortunately for the country, Bush the Elder failed in that first bid for the White House. Reagan’s simplistic plan, “voodoo economics” has now become orthodoxy not just for the Republican party, but most major political parties around the world. Even the Democratic Party only talks about raising taxes on whomever it defines as “wealthy,” while usually offering tax cuts to other voters.
Part of the reason Jeb fears the primary “vortex” is that he doesn’t actually seem sure of his own positions. Despite having years to ponder such an obvious question, Jeb was caught flat-footed earlier this year over whether or not he agreed with his brother’s decision to invade Iraq.
During the second week of May, before he formally entered the race, Jeb Bush made 5 separate attempts to answer whether or not he would have chosen to invade Iraq in 2003. He went from yes to no and back to yes. In the end, he sort of side-stepped the question and said, simply, that taking out Saddam Hussein “turned out to be a pretty good deal.”
It isn’t so much his answer that is troubling, but the fact that he didn’t have an answer. The question itself is somewhat unfair, because the subsequent 12 years hadn’t happened at the time the decision was made. Putting almost any question in the frame of “knowing what you know now” is an impossible construct.
More ridiculous, though, is the idea that Jeb didn’t have an answer ready for such an obvious question. But then, Jeb occupies a space no other candidate does; it was his own brother that ordered the invasion.
According to Bush family lore, Jeb was always expected to run for President, rather than his older brother George W. The elder son, though, won his race for Governor of Texas in 1994, while Jeb lost his race in Florida that year. Jeb would win that election four years later, but that twist of fate gave George W. the edge on running for the White House.
Now, Jeb is facing the unenviable task of begin the third member of his family to run for President in almost as many decades at a time that voters want decisive change. Jeb often says on the campaign trail, “I’m my own man.” He said it during the recent debate. On his recent appearance on the Stephen Colbert show, Bush even said that he was more conservative than his brother. He said his brother should “have brought the hammer down” on federal spending.
Perhaps the most awkward position for Jeb though has been on the one issue where he has staked his own course: immigration. It occupies such a central position in his policy world that he co-wrote a book on the subject several years ago. Earlier this year he even bragged that he alone had a “grown-up” immigration plan. (Bush has a weird penchant for referring to himself and his plans as “adult” or “grown up.”)
Odd then, that his position on immigration seems so juvenile and based largely on emotion. Two years ago, Jeb praised immigrants for being “more fertile” than the native population. Recently, he said that illegal migrants to the US come into the country as an “act of love.”
Immigration has of course been a benefit to this country. Some immigrants are highly productive additions to the country and the culture. Even some of the more bizarre things Jeb has said are true. All of these facts, though, are beside the point in the current crisis. They reflect an emotional position uninformed by current facts.
Asked about Obama’s executive actions extending defacto-amnesty, Bush warned Republicans not “to have their heads explode.”
This is probably because, for Bush, immigration is an emotional issue. In the opening of his book on immigration, Bush wrote:
Thanks to my wife, I became bicultural and bilingual, and my life is better because of it. For the first time in my life, I learned what the immigrant experience was, and I grew to appreciate her desire to learn English and embrace American values, while still retaining her love for the traditions of Mexico
Bush almost never makes a campaign speech without noting that his wife is from Mexico. Such a bicultural marriage is actually pretty common in most of the country. So common, in fact, that it is unremarkable. Bush, however, seems to think this fact is especially noteworthy.
“Georgia represents the new America that I know,” he said. “The new America is an America that doesn’t have hyphens. It’s an America where your work and your effort is your definition, not some identity in political form.”
He said that his granddaughter would be a quadra-hyphenated “Canadian-Iraqi-Mexican-Texas-American” because her mother is a Canadian born to Iraqi parents, her grandmother is Mexican, her father was born in Florida and her grandfather is from Texas.
It might be unfair, but it seems that only an East Coast WASP would find this kind of heritage remarkable.
Regardless, it is perhaps understandable, then, that Jeb has made immigration such a centerpiece of his candidacy. What isn’t understandable is that his positions on it keep changing.
In his book, Immigration Wars, Bush wrote that he opposed a pathway to citizenship for illegal migrants currently in the country. Just hours after it was published, though, Jeb said he supported a pathway to citizenship. He has been back and forth on the question of “amnesty” throughout the campaign.
Bush has both defended “birthright citizenship” as a constitutional right, but also has called for measures to combat “anchor babies”, which is a phenomenon arising out of birthright citizenship. He has also said that “birthright citizenship” is being exploited by Asian tourists.
Perhaps Bush is just a confused adult. It is possible that he is so fearful of the primary “vortex” that he isn’t sure what specifically his positions should be. Possibly, though, he is so burdened by his own family dynasty that he is still trying to chart his own course.
Whatever the reason, it isn’t pretty for the rest of us to watch.