For Jeb Bush’s loyalists, the first moment of palpable panic — and there would be more than they ever expected in the months to come — built over four days last May when their not-yet-presidential candidate struggled repeatedly to utter a one-word answer — No — to an utterly predictable question: Should the U.S. have invaded Iraq?
Bush bungled the response when he was asked the first time. His staff prepared him for the next one. He knew what he had to say. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Couldn’t throw his older brother, former President George W. Bush, under the bus.
W. telephoned Jeb and told him to get over it.
By then, Bush donors and friends had gotten a very public glimpse of what could derail the former Florida governor’s bid for the Republican nomination — and resoundingly end the Bush family era in the GOP.
He was rusty, nine years removed from office and 13 years removed from a campaign. He was unfamiliar with how modern political news works, where four days to fix a mistake comprise an unforgiving eternity. And he was ill-prepared to grapple with the one challenge he knew going in he’d be unable to change: his last name.
“We’ve had enough Bushes,” his mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, had asserted in 2013.
Her words, which she later took back, proved to be prescient.
Jeb Bush’s White House ambitions came to a dramatic end Saturday in South Carolina, when a tearful Bush conceded his campaign was over.
Blame a candidate mismatched to his party’s political reality — and a campaign too slow to adapt to it.
“Jeb was the candidate of ideas and experience, and the election has been about feelings and entertainment,” said U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Miami Republican who had backed Bush and plans to endorse Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on Monday. “So structurally — and regrettably — his candidacy didn’t fit.”
Bush ran on his Tallahassee achievements. Conservatives had spent nearly seven years lamenting the inexperience of Barack Obama; surely to replace him they’d turn to a veteran executive, a leader with so much conviction that he declared in December 2014 that the GOP’s next nominee would have to be willing to “lose the primary to win the general, without violating your principles.”
“It’s not an easy task, to be honest with you,” he added.
Bush built a behemoth — dubbed “Jeb Inc.” — backed by the best-funded super PAC in history. His longtime political advisers, Sally Bradshaw and Mike Murphy, planned to scare away rivals by raising gobs of money.
Mitt Romney decided to sit out the 2016 race after twice seeking the presidency. But no other Republican seemed intimidated by Bush’s muscle. His eventual rivals detected in public-opinion polls a strain of disgust with political elites, and an opening for new blood. Bush’s pledge to campaign “joyfully” sounded discordant for the times — and odd for a man better known in the Florida Capitol for his aggressiveness.
He traversed the country, collecting checks for the Right to Rise super PAC, which would later split from the campaign, as required by law, and be run out of Los Angeles by Murphy. Bradshaw took the reins of Jeb 2016, which was based in West Miami-Dade County (even though Bradshaw still lived near Tallahassee) along with campaign manager Danny Diaz. With its power to rake in unlimited donations, Right to Rise would bolster the campaign’s efforts, though the two organizations were barred from any coordination.
From the start, the campaign hired extensively and paid handsomely. That money, though, couldn’t come from Right to Rise, which had pulled off a record $103 million haul in six months. The campaign needed to raise the cash itself. It couldn’t keep up. The budget had to shrink, again and again.
Each round, donors panicked again. Some sent angry emails with their ideas of what — and who — needed to change.
“Very seldom do you start a company with $100 million in the bank and manage to blow it out of the door, with little results to show for it,” said Miami healthcare magnate Mike Fernandez, who gave more than $3 million to Right to Rise before he became displeased with the campaign last fall. “You don’t start a start-up with 100 employees. You’ve got to work your way into it.
“I think they misread it: They felt that they were going to win, so instead of starting lean and mean — I’m just guessing — they started with a transition team. When you think of yourself as the appointed one from Day One — or your team does — something’s going to give.”
The campaign mostly blamed the X-factor: Donald Trump.
Trump launched his surprise candidacy, all bluster and flash, just a day after Bush. Bush drew thousands of thrilled backers to a highly produced event at Miami Dade College. Trump attracted tourists — and reportedly paid actors — to the lobby of Trump Tower in New York City. He arrived via a down escalator.
Bush laughed off Trump’s challenge. His campaign, like the other Republicans, ignored him as blip that would disappear.
By the time the two men faced off, at the first primary debate last August in Cleveland, Trump was dominant. He had labeled Bush “low energy,” a far from accurate label for the workaholic Bush and his grueling schedule.
But something about the branding stuck — maybe because of Bush’s slimmed-down frame, the result of exercise and a Paleo diet, or because of his genteel and decent demeanor, so jarringly different from Trump’s bravado. Conflict erupted in Bush headquarters over how to respond, with no clear vision.
Bush tried to take on the new front-runner. But Trump refused to apologize for insulting Mexican Americans — and by extension Bush’s Mexican-born wife, Columba. When Bush was asked at the debate if he had privately referred to Trump as a word “that cannot be repeated on television” — “asshole” — Bush denied it. Nobody believed him.
Trump got the better of Bush. Cue more panic.
Bush tried another tack: to go after Marco Rubio, the rival he and his aides knew best. Team Bush had assumed Rubio would defer to his older friend and put on hold his own presidential ambitions. When he didn’t, Bush’s friends felt betrayed. Though Bush aides insisted Rubio posed no threat, in private they constantly tried to figure out what Rubio was up to.
And when they signaled Bush would take on Rubio directly at an October debate in Colorado, Rubio was ready. After Bush chided him for missing Senate work days, Rubio made it hurt: “The only reason why you’re doing it now is because we’re running for the same position, and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.”
From there, the Bush campaign seemed to follow two paths. He focused on Trump, improving his responses to him in every debate and pounding him more than any other candidate. Right to Rise, which was paying for almost all of the advertising, focused on Rubio. Donors seethed. Even as Bush got into a groove as a campaigner, giving thoughtful answers at his favorite venue, town-hall style meetings — at times in recent weeks people left overcome with emotion — nothing worked. He just wasn’t popular enough.
The best he got was fourth place in New Hampshire that felt like a victory — and fourth place in South Carolina that brought it all tumbling down.
Bush quit the race with only four delegates to his name — after spending about $100 million between his campaign and PAC. He bowed out with some money left in the bank, but he knew carrying on would be futile.
“Jeb and the Bush family can always be counted on doing what’s best for the party and the country,” Curbelo said.
“Obviously the early stumbles didn’t help — the debate performances, the inertia on what to do about Trump,” he admitted.
But in the end, Curbelo came to the same conclusion as everybody else at Bush: “This was just not his year.”