CHARLESTON, S.C. — What were they thinking?
In hindsight that may be the biggest question: How did Jeb Bush and his once-savvy political team so badly misunderstand today's Republican electorate?
The bold — and, yes, high-energy — governor who transformed Florida government and politics in the 1990s was thoroughly unprepared for today's far more conservative, far more angry Republican Party than when he governed. It was absurd for thoughtful and thin-skinned Bush ever to think he could run a "joyful" campaign for president in this political environment.
He ran honorably, but as he gave in to reality Saturday night and suspended his campaign, the giant in Florida politics had become much diminished as a presidential candidate. It wasn't Donald Trump's fault and it wasn't George W. Bush's fault. Bush spent $150 million and failed to earn even a bronze third-place medal in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina. Republicans simply weren't buying from a candidate whose time had passed.
"I certainly like Jeb Bush. He was a good, conservative governor, but I just see Marco Rubio as doing more for the party. He's a new face; he's sincere," retired teacher Diann Montague of Columbia, S.C., said last week, shaking her head over Bush's debate performances.
"When he tried to defend himself, he sounded defensive. Then he went on the attack and just didn't have the heart for that. It's a no-win situation for Jeb," she said.
Bush left office as a towering political figure, but in the ensuing decade he quietly focused on growing his own wealth rather than promoting conservatism. While the tea party grew, Bush stayed on the sidelines, only occasionally surfacing for interviews in which he tsk-tsked Washington Republicans for refusing to sometimes compromise with Democrats. When he finally started to rev up a presidential campaign, he turned to longtime political advisers Sally Bradshaw and Mark Murphy, who had argued that the GOP needed to be more inclusive, which is not where the base of their party is today.
Bush was prepared to raise vast amounts of money from a GOP establishment also out of step with much of the party's conservative base, but he wasn't prepared to answer whether his brother's Iraq invasion was wise. He and his team expected his record of accomplishment, a ton of endorsements from party leaders and a mammoth campaign bank account would make him the inevitable nominee. It probably would have a decade ago, but not today.
The Bush campaign miscalculated on many fronts — focusing far too much effort on Iowa's caucuses, rather than lowering expectations there from the start, and producing TV ads featuring aging Tallahassee lobbyists and retired politicians that cast Bush more as a candidate of yesterday than tomorrow — but ultimately it was Bush himself who failed.
He could wow some town hall gatherings with his substance, but on TV and especially during early debates, he looked awkward and tentative. The rise of combative and blustery Trump only made Bush look more meek in comparison. In recent weeks, voters often repeated a common, two-word refrain: "Poor Jeb."
Somehow his campaign team failed to grasp the level of frustration and anger in voters. Barbara Bush actually seemed to understand that sentiment in her gut better than her son and his top advisers.
"We've had enough Bushes," she told the Today show in 2013 when asked about him running for president.
Many of us who watched Bush lead Florida's political transformation overestimated his political skill. He simply wasn't particularly good at politics, or at least at inspiring and exciting voters. We saw him trounce two weak Democratic challengers, Buddy MacKay and Bill McBride, and we saw him push through a sweeping and ambitious agenda in Tallahassee with a docile and compliant Republican-controlled Legislature. Based on that, we wrongly assumed he could be more persuasive with voters across the country.
Bush improved considerably as a candidate, but ultimately he remained a cerebral technocrat at a time when many voters are looking for a bulldozer to tear up Washington.
In the sort of soap opera narrative that Bush always loathed and could never escape, lore had it that he was supposed to be the one who wound up in the White House, except he narrowly lost his 1994 race against Lawton Chiles while George W. won his Texas governor's race against Ann Richards. We now see that was a myth.
Turns out the swaggering W. who led Texas was a far better politician than the introverted "smart Bush" who ran Florida.
Contact Adam C. Smith at email@example.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.