Relax. It’s all going to be fine, right? I know how this works, you know how this works, and I know you know how this works. Sure, famed titan of industry and serial bankruptcy declarer Donald Trump may sport impressive poll numbers beside his name as the GOP race heats up, but we both know that this is just part of the script. The combination of the firmly entrenched centrality of presidential elections in American culture and also the still-dazzling ability of modern media to give a public platform to everyone with an iPhone has made novelty-vanity candidacy a very attractive option for savvy people who may not actually want to be president, but who are willing to mold their platforms, ideas, and agendas to appear to have presidential ambitions in order to disseminate whatever message they have to the masses. The rise of the Tea Party in recent years has resulted in a marginally larger group of fringe candidates who purportedly seek the GOP nomination, but neither party is theoretically safe from this phenomenon. And hilarity always ensues, if only briefly. Right?
Take the 2012 election: early polling numbers were all over the place because they depended on the whims of that particular sector of the population in New Hampshire and Iowa that has landlines, answers them, and is home in the middle of the day to field calls from strangers and discuss their political opinions. As a result, pizza magnate Herman Cain, unblinking nouveau McCarthyist Michele Bachmann, and all-around bad person Rick Santorum each briefly seized momentum in polling while they rolled out laughably bad public policy distilled to 30-second soundbites, like the immortal 9-9-9 (the “Angry German Tax Plan”) or calls to investigate entirely nonexistent Muslim Brotherhood sleeper cells within the U.S. government. In modern elections, until the clear favorite establishes himself (or herself, I guess, but given that we’re talking about Republicans this time, let’s be real), weird stuff happens, man.
It’s easy to forget just how exhausting this giant game of Mitt Romney Whack-a-Mole actually was. In the eight short months between August 2011 and March 2012, the following individuals managed to hold a lead in national polls: Romney, Rick Perry, Romney again, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Romney for awhile longer, hey look it’s Newt again, Romney, hey wait where the hell did Rick Santorum come from? A few headlines breathlessly wonder if the novelty candidate du jour is, this time, here to stay (“HERE COMES CAIN”; “PERRY SEIZING CONTROL”; “NEWT!!!!!!”).
But then, the Real Debates happen, and the Serious Voters start to take note. The grown-ups candidates, who up until this point have quietly allowed the children get all worked up and tucker themselves out and fall asleep on the couch, comfortably seize control and say things that actually sound respectable and presidential (for the most part). As fringe candidates find that locating their names requires more and more scrolling down through the latest poll results, they finally tearfully suspend their campaigns, immediately set up PACs with vaguely Americana names like “Patriot Voices,” and plan for their next grifting campaign disguised as a presidential bid. That’s how it works. The script is there. The script always unfolds. But Donald Trump is not following the script, because Jeb Bush is sitting back and allowing him to ad-lib whatever the hell he wants.
With apologies to the very capable Ohio Governor John Kasich, Jeb Bush is almost certainly the leading Real Candidate in the 2016 GOP race. He’s a fairly middle-of-the-road Republican who speaks fluent Spanish and can claim an extensive (if spotty) presidential pedigree, voluminous executive experience that drew admirers from both sides of the aisle during his tenure, and a strong pull in a swing state that has been, uh, rather kind to certain members of family in a similar situation. On paper, Bush is so, so electable. And yet! Donald Trump still manages to claim ever-larger pieces of the GOP pie, shooting to over 30% in the most recent poll and nearly doubling the count of his next-closest competitor, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who is a real person who Republican voters apparently think would be a legitimate presidential candidate. Jeb ekes out only a third-place tie, at 8%, with Texas Senator Ted Cruz, the guy who of late has apparently decided to do everything he can to challenge Donald Trump in the “Casual Racist Comments” category. A distant tie for third? What’s going on here?
In every interview, Jeb Bush looks and sounds like someone who wants to want to be president — but he doesn’t. His tepid performance in the first clown show of a debate was so lackluster that commentators couldn’t really manage to meaningfully criticize him; they just seemed bewildered, frustrated, and resigned, like they were parents whose sixteen-year-old incurs $100 in text message overage charges every month. Trump, sensing this weakness, has seized every opportunity to gleefully mock Bush in recent months, calling him at various times a “low-energy person” who is “going down fast.” At least one woman at Jeb’s latest event did him no favors in changing this public perception.
One woman seemed rather low on energy during a town hall event for Republican candidate Jeb Bush on Thursday, struggling to keep her eyes open and yawning during part of Bush’s event.
Oh. So it’s not even a joke this time. This actually happened. Okay.
“I think the norm ought to be that the basic health care commitment by this country to people ought to be that the health care is affordable, which means lower-premium, higher-deductible plans where the subsidy and the support comes in the out-of-pocket costs and that insurance provides catastrophic coverage,” Bush says in the part of the video that shows the woman’s eyes closed.
Around the 35-second mark, the woman opens her eyes, looking up occasionally at the candidate and, at one point, letting out a hearty yawn.
Good Lord. Look, Donald Trump is a charismatic, xenophobic, arrogant blowhard who would govern with all the grace and tact of Rand Paul guest lecturing at a police training academy class. The script says that he’ll eventually go away. But it’s getting increasingly uncomfortable to see just how reluctant Jeb apparently is, particularly given his enviable electability, to start that process. In fact, Jeb has allowed Trump to hang around for so long this week that the Bush campaign finally did what Romney before him refused to do with respect to fringe candidates, directly attacking Trump by compiling a series of old interview clips in which Donald Trump touts his support for single-payer healthcare, the right to choose, and, incredibly, Hillary Clinton. While the video is a fairly generic piece of soundbite political campaigning, its mere release is a victory of sorts for Trump because it shows that Jeb acknowledges him as a legitimate candidate and an opponent to be taken seriously. In fact, Bush even said as much (I imagine tiredly) in a town hall in Virginia last week.
“Look, this guy’s the front-runner. He should be treated like a front-runner, not like some kind of alternative universe to the political system.”
Yeah, sort of. But there’s a certain degree of responsibility that Bush refuses to take by making that statement. Donald Trump is the front-runner in the sense that he’s ginned up excitement among primary voters and said outrageous things that at least some Republican voters might not say themselves but would definitely think about after a drink or two. But Donald Trump is not the front-runner in that he possesses literally any good policy ideas that he’s cared to share with the American public, and his campaign platform is dominated by nuggets of nuanced governance like quickly moving to “bomb the hell” out of Iraqi oil fields (seriously) if he were elected president. No, Donald Trump is in this position because the man who, on paper, appears poised and best positioned to take control of the Republican party’s discourse has proven himself to be, so far, totally unwilling to do so.
Look, there’s still a long way to go. At this point in the 2012 election cycle, Rick Perry was just kicking off his brief tenure as the first of the leaders of the pack that I printed a few paragraphs ago. Take comfort (or fear, depending on your point of view) that we haven’t arrived at this campaign’s version of Herman Cain or Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum; Bush can still be the Romney in all of this. But look at how many times Romney appears and reappears on that list. In fact, even when Romney trailed one of the many temporary leaders four years ago, he never dipped below 20 percent and, importantly, he never fell outside the top two contenders. This trajectory tells an important part of the story that Jeb’s campaign is missing entirely: while voters in 2012 occasionally briefly became enamored with someone new and shiny, not unlike crows finding a tin can buried in the sand at the beach, the most electable candidate made sure that he never was pushed too far out of the spotlight. Thus far, Jeb Bush and his single-digit poll numbers haven’t even had to squint yet.
This is important because every week that Bush fails to connect meaningfully with voters is another week that Donald Trump will generate negative attention and make it more difficult for the eventual Real Adult GOP nominee — Bush or otherwise — to be taken even remotely seriously in the general election. That’s bad for Republicans, yes, but it’s also the case that if the major-party candidates don’t push and inspire and challenge one another in summer 2016, voters of all loyalties lose. Whether he wants it or not, that’s on Jeb, and the clock is still ticking.