In politics, the smallest things often turn out to be the most telling ones, and so it is with the man who was supposed to be the Republican front-runner, who once inspired such rapture among party elders and whose entrance into the presidential race they yearned and clamored for.
They not only got their wish, they got it with punctuation: Jeb! That's Jeb Bush's logo, and the exclamation point is the tell. None of the other Republican presidential candidates has anything like it. None of the Democrats either. It's a declaration of passion that only someone worried about a deficit of it would issue. Methinks thou doth exclaim too much.
Before Bush announced his candidacy, talk of his vulnerabilities focused largely on certain positions — his defense of Common Core educational standards, his advocacy for immigration reform — that were anathema to many voters in the Republican primaries. He was sure to catch flak.
But catching fire is his bigger problem. He can't do it. In a bloated field of bellicose candidates, he's a whisper, a blur, starved of momentum, bereft of urgency and apt to make news because he stumbles, not because he soars. Can he soar? Or even sprint?
"I'm the tortoise in the race," he told a group of voters in Florida not long ago. "But I'm a joyful tortoise."
And Donald Trump's a demented peacock and I'm a crotchety hippo. Reverse anthropomorphism is a fun game, but if you're playing it in the service of selling yourself, best not to summon a sluggish creature with a muted affect and an impenetrable shell.
Republicans should have seen this turtle coming. In some sense they did. Bush's fans and backers praised him as a thoughtful "policy wonk" and conceded that he wasn't any dynamo at the lectern or on the trail.
But they downgraded the importance of dynamism, maybe because they didn't expect so much competition, including Trump. (It's "the race between the tortoise and the bad hair," cracked Jay Leno last week.) They couldn't envision the way in which 16 rivals would rob Bush of clear distinction and definition.
Sure, he speaks Spanish and has a Mexican-born wife, but Marco Rubio also speaks Spanish and has two Cuban-born parents. Sure, he was twice elected governor of a state that's not reliably red, but so were Scott Walker, Chris Christie and John Kasich.
He's not the most eloquent or the most inspiring, so his backers began to pitch him as the most adult. But at that first debate, Kasich stole even that superlative from him.
What's left? He's raised the most money, some of which he'll use for television ads much sooner than anyone had anticipated. He'll try to buy the oomph that he can't organically generate.
Oomph is what that big speech last week — in which he blamed Hillary Rodham Clinton for the rise of the Islamic State — was largely about. He was flexing his audacity and independence, showing that his surname wouldn't cow him from going after a Democratic rival on any matter, including Iraq. It took gall to edit his older brother out of the diatribe. It took guts to go with a diatribe in the first place.
Did it help? Polls suggest not. A CNN/ORC survey that was released Tuesday showed that he doesn't fare nearly as well as Trump when Republican voters are asked whom they trust most on the economy, on immigration and on battling Islamic extremists.
He runs afoul of the moment. Voters right now are more enamored of outsiders than usual, as the traction of not just Trump but also two other Republican candidates who have never held elective office — Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina — demonstrates.
Voters have had enough of protocol and pieties. Thus Trump thrives in a party that he constantly browbeats and shows no real loyalty toward, while Bernie Sanders flourishes among Democrats though he has repeatedly railed against them and doesn't technically identify as one.
For some alienated voters, supporting either of these two insurgents is the same as raising a middle finger to establishment politicians and to politics as usual, and tactful, tasteful Bush can never be a middle finger. More like a pinkie.
The pinkie may prevail. In the Bush camp there's a theory, or perhaps an anxiety-quelling fantasy, that the Trump mania and the related craziness will benefit Bush, who can methodically build support and incrementally lengthen his stride while the glare and heat are on others.
Trump burns out, the field eventually winnows and Bush is saved by a superlative after all. He's the most durable candidate.
It's a plausible scenario. But it's hardly a joyful one. And there's only one way to punctuate it — with a question mark.
© 2015 New York Times