It was never meant to go this way. President George H.W. Bush and Barbara always assumed that Governor Jeb Bush of Florida would ascend to the White House on the beaten, gold-trimmed, oil-slicked path his grandfather had paved, his father had trodden, his brother dismantled along the way. But that never quite panned out. Instead, the same year that Jeb lost his bid for the Florida governorship in 1994, George W. Bush unexpectedly beat Democratic governor Ann Richards in Texas. As a recent Politico Magazine article argues, this was the defining moment in the siblings’ respective trajectories.
As the popular governor of one of the most populous states in the union, Dubbya won the 2000 Republican nomination by selling himself as a moderate, “compassionate conservative,” though, of course, he would eventually become the most polarizing president in recent history, save his successor. His brother’s campaign was exactly the kind that Jeb! would have loved to run. As he has repeated ad nauseam, he wants to provide a sunny, optimistic, conservative alternative to what he perceives as the pessimism of the Obama years. This was how Reagan ran, how his father ran, how his brother ran, how he is running, and it is a model that no longer applies. “Jeb Bush” no longer applies.
The Republican Party is engaged in a civil war for its soul. The base is not just frustrated; it is livid. Donald Trump and Ben Carson, neither of whom have ever held public office, maintain over 50% of the national support of likely Republican primary voters. The most stunning aspects of this support are, firstly, on Trump’s part, that it is mostly personality-driven, but secondly, that it is a damning repudiation of the Republican establishment. As an exasperated Governor John Kasich of Ohio recently asked at a campaign rally, “What has happened to the conservative movement?”
A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll does a great deal to answer that question. The poll found that 71% of Republican primary voters agreed they felt out of place in their own country and “uneasy about widespread illegal immigration, the shrinking role of religion in public life and the growing acceptance of gay and lesbian rights.” 12% of Democrats felt similarly. Whereas 75% of Democrats are proud of how the country “continues to make progress as a tolerant nation,” only 10% of Republicans cited a similar pride. Even assessments of the economy divide down partisan lines. Where 47% of Democrats are cautiously optimistic about the economy, a whopping 4% of Republicans shared that sentiment.
This gap, or more accurately, this gulf, between Democrats’ and Republicans’ perceptions of the country speaks to the core of why we live in the most politically polarized climate since the Civil War, and why Jeb Bush will never be president. As highlighted by the “out of place and uneasy” question’s formulation, it is exactly the cultural and demographic trends of the past decade that frighten likely GOP primary voters. The Supreme Court, in all of its liberal judicial activism, decreed that gays and lesbians can now marry – marry! – their partners. The number of non-white babies born today now exceeds that of white babies. Christianity has been under attack, first when liberals desecrated Christmas, and now on the front lines and in the trenches with Kim Davis.
Jeb Bush’s insistence on optimism, coupled with his relatively reserved nature compared to the Donald, his genetic foot-in-mouth syndrome, and, perhaps above all else, his last name, makes him perhaps the worst possible fit for the current mood of Republican voters. As a group, they are viscerally angry at a Republican establishment that they believe has continuously preyed on their demands for transformative change and not delivered. What is the point of the gerrymandering that got Republicans the largest majority in the House of Representatives they have had since the Great Depression if they will not do anything with it? President George W. Bush is seen as the embodiment of big government Republicanism. Why, then, would any voter in such a frame of mind even consider this less charismatic, equally inarticulate, tone-deaf Bush?
As always, we must consider the consequences of these developments for the health of American democracy. The Republican base’s unquenchable thirst for the uncompromising and the brash might well spell the doom of the party as a whole. The facts are that we do live in a time of great demographic and cultural change, and the trend-lines unambiguously favor Democrats. What, then, will become of our two-party system in which one is crippled by its lifeblood, unable to reach beyond the dwindling support of its largely white, elderly, male constituency? It is a fraught prospect, but what is clear is that Jeb’s window of opportunity to become the inevitable candidate so many thought he would be closed a long time ago. Marco Rubio may well be the Republican Party’s last hope.