If you got the impression from former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign rollout that he appeared to believe his party’s nomination was quite simply his due, you weren’t alone. Bush’s decision to reveal his intention to explore a presidential bid in mid-December of last year indicated that he knew the 2016 field would be a crowded one and that he would have to make his case to the Republican electorate early and often. But his actions betrayed a sense of self-assuredness that indicated he did not really believe the contest would be a close one. The pathway to the nomination has, however, been a harder slog for Bush than he anticipated. Today, reeling from the humbling he has endured at the hands of events and the prospective Republican primary electorate, Jeb Bush is adapting and changing course.
The former Sunshine State governor famously entered the race for the presidency just weeks after he declared that his candidacy would be one that would “lose the primary to win the general.” Bush insisted that he would not allow the campaign to force him to violate his principles merely in order to secure the requisite delegates at the Republican National Convention.
Bush resented what he believed the 2012 primary process did to Mitt Romney, and he appeared to regard the conservative movement that constitutes the Republican Party’s base as an obstacle in his quest to win the White House. “I used to be a conservative and I watch these debates and I’m wondering, I don’t think I’ve changed, but it’s a little troubling sometimes when people are appealing to people’s fears and emotion rather than trying to get them to look over the horizon for a broader perspective and that’s kind of where we are,” Bush said in 2012. “I think it changes when we get to the general election. I hope.”
So the former governor determined that he would simply ignore the demands of a primary campaign and position himself as the inevitable Republican nominee as early as he could. Toward this end, Bush would decline to attack his fellow Republican presidential candidates; to even acknowledge his competition is to reduce his own stature the thinking went. But Bush did not quickly emerge as the prohibitive favorite to win the GOP nomination, as he believed he would. His most potent early competitors, like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, have failed to implode. Bush’s stature in his home state could not derail the candidacy of his protégé, Florida Senator Marco Rubio. This week, Bush abandoned the delusion that the nomination was his to lose when his campaign engaged in a variety of high-profile personnel changes.
Jeb Bush had been humbled, and it was precisely those agitators within the conservative movement he was once so determined to ignore who delivered that humiliation.
“In interviews this week, dozens of Bush backers and informed Republicans — most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to comment candidly — described an overly optimistic, even haughty exploratory operation,” the Washington Post reported on Thursday. “Strategic errors were exacerbated by unexpected stumbles by the would-be candidate and internal strife within his team, culminating in a staff shake-up this week.”
“Donors were getting a little edgy,” outside Bush advisor Vin Webber told Post reporters. “No one is ready to jump ship. Nobody has lost heart. But they have watched other candidates rise in the polls.”
Webber puts a brave face on a situation that is grimmer than he lets on. Two sources recently told the Post that Bush’s Right to Rise PAC would not be able to raise the $100 million it had anticipated it would before the end of June. “At the right time, we will release a very formidable number,” PAC strategist Mike Murphy said. And the sum that Bush’s allies will raise is almost certain to be intimidating, but the failure to meet expectations will leave a lot of savvy Republican investors within Bush’s orbit wondering if they will recoup a return. For Bush, the family well might already be drying up.
Jeb Bush’s quest for the nomination is far from over, and he might have righted his ship by embracing a new course. If the former Florida governor is able to win his party’s presidential nomination, he will be a better general election candidate for having endured this chastening experience. Over the last six months, Bush learned the obvious: you cannot win the general if you don’t win the primary.