Not the Bush You Think He Is

tags: Jeb Bush

There’s a substantial gulf between the Jeb Bush who served two formidable terms as Florida governor and the man who’s recently earned himself gleeful comparisons to Dan Quayle. In fact, one could be more generous than that: There’s a substantial gulf between the Jeb Bush one sees on the primary-state pancake circuit and the man who, on national television recently, could not answer a simple question without inviting several dozen more. The Jeb Bush of town halls and Hampton Inn meet-and-greets is confident, alert, quick-witted: At “Politics and Pie” in New Hampshire, when a voter nervously began to ask, “Governor, having been the former governor of Florida — ” Bush cut him off: “You too?” 

It took a moment for the audience to get it. The governor had just made a joke about a potential dangling modifier. Unlike his brother or his father, he doesn’t inspire panic that once he starts a sentence, he’ll never come out the other end alive.

But even before a bungled answer to a question about the Iraq War gave Jeb’s all-but-declared campaign the biggest headache of its unofficial history, people were starting to wonder whether the governor was equipped to handle the panoptic grind that American politics has become. At this stage, John Ellis Bush was supposed to be considerably ahead of the primary pack. He’s been hauling in money in giant lobster nets; he’s the Establishment favorite; and he moves through the world with the force of a thrown stone, applying his will with such adamantine determination that eventually the world curves back to him. This was supposed to be his moment. Or scotch that: Fifteen years ago was supposed to be his moment. Jeb was always considered the brighter Bush, and had he won his first gubernatorial race in 1994, it is likely that he, rather than his brother, would have been the GOP’s presidential nominee in 2000. In Tallahassee, where Jeb spent most of his brother’s presidency, some Republicans used to joke: We elected the Bush who went to Yale but acts like he went to the University of Texas; who we needed was the Bush who went to the University of Texas but acts like he went to Yale.  

Instead of emerging as the inevitable candidate, the former governor finds himself in a Republican primary field of eight, and it could billow to as many as 15. Among the already declared is Marco Rubio, the freshman senator from Florida and one of Jeb’s former protégés. Jeb has underwhelmed the base — in Iowa, he polls in seventh place — and revealed himself to be far less polished on the hustings than his supporters had anticipated, particularly when answering questions that force him to navigate between family loyalty and a rational foreign policy. His one job above all else was to distinguish himself from his father and his brother, who rattle about Jeb’s campaign like a pair of unzappable ghosts. Yet when Fox News’ Megyn Kelly asked him whether he’d have supported the Iraq War, knowing what he knows now, the governor’s whiffing sequence of answers made clear he’d only thought through how to distinguish himself personally from his brother — by telling the story of his marriage, mainly, to a beautiful Mexican woman he’d met in León when he was still a high-school teen — but not politically.

Anyone who’s familiar with Jeb, though, doesn’t seem nearly as fixated on this episode as members of the national press corps. They know that freestyling is his natural political mode. As governor, Jeb genuinely enjoyed mixing it up with local reporters, almost always fielding more queries than his staff would have liked. “He’d do a five-minute gaggle” — mediaspeak for a mini press conference — “and you’d get five stories,” says Adam C. Smith, the political editor of the Tampa Bay Times. “He’d think out loud, he liked to banter. Compared to Charlie Crist, who never said anything, he was fun to cover.” But now, it seems, the very qualities that served Jeb well with the Florida press — spontaneity, authenticity — are serving him poorly on the national stage. Which is a shame, in its way: One of the pleasures of being around him, day to day, on the stump, is his enthusiasm for speaking off the cuff. (And I report this, it should be noted, as a person who agrees with exactly nothing the governor says.) ...

Read entire article at The New Yorker

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