WASHINGTON – The South Carolina Republican primary may well be Jeb Bush’s last stand. He described the situation – polls show him trailing badly, following weak performances in Iowa and New Hampshire – in typical Bushian syntax:
“It’s all been decided, apparently,” he harrumphed this week in Summerville, a town near Charleston. “The pundits have made it all, we don’t have to go vote, I guess. I should stop campaigning maybe, huh?”
Maybe so, actually.
Several recent state polls agree on two things: Bush’s nemesis, Donald Trump, has a commanding lead in my native state; and no late-breaking surge for Bush has yet been discerned. South Carolina Republicans are capable of producing a surprise – in 2012, Newt Gingrich trounced Mitt Romney, who was the establishment favorite – but I see no good reason to wager that Bush is about to stun the political world.
In national polls, meanwhile, the Real Clear Politics average pegs Bush’s support at a humiliating 4.5 percent. This is after his campaign and Right to Rise, the super PAC that supports him, have raised more than $150 million – and spent a jaw-dropping $80 million. Perhaps they raked all that cash into a pile and set it on fire.
South Carolina was thought to be a place where the Bush name was still more asset than liability. The campaign threw everything it could think of at the state’s voters, including a highly touted, elaborately staged visit by former president George W. Bush – whose brief speech displayed a sparkle and swagger that his younger brother, let’s face it, seriously lacks.
If Jeb Bush finishes fourth or fifth, as the polls predict, what is his rationale for trudging on? Will honchos at the campaign and the super PAC manage to convince themselves that somehow everything will change before Super Tuesday, when a bonanza of delegates is at stake? The people on Team Bush are far too experienced to seriously believe that wishing and hoping constitute a plan.
If Bush does have to fold after Saturday, it will be a shame. For one thing, we’ll be deprived of all the odd, off-key, often incomprehensible things he says and does. Of all the candidates in both parties, only Trump offers better entertainment value.
Part of Bush’s problem is his difficulty in forming comprehensible sentences. This is, of course, a family trait. Years ago, when George Bush the Elder held a joint news conference with the president of Uruguay, the South American leader promised to “answer any questions in my broken English, which is, of course, our common language.” George Bush the Younger once said that one job of the president was to “keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda.”
Jeb Bush’s verbal misadventures are not quite so wild and weird. Often, he just doesn’t know when to stop. He once defended Right to Rise’s tough attack ads by saying, “My mission is to go to as many town halls as I can, to show my heart, to show my spine, to show my mind, to simplify it down.” It sounded as if he were channeling the ghostly thoughts of a medical school cadaver.
In New Hampshire, after telling an audience that he would not be “blow-hardin’, talkin’ a big game without backing it up,” the audience did not react to an applause line about creating a more peaceful world. “Please clap,” he said.
And this week, apropos of nothing, he tweeted a picture of his handgun.
I have friends who know Bush well and worked with him when he was governor of Florida, and they tell me he has a first-rate mind. But they acknowledge that his campaign has been a disaster, and they can’t imagine, at this point, how he turns it around.
It may be that the whole enterprise was doomed from the beginning. In a year when voters are obviously looking for new blood and new ideas, Bush embodies the Republican establishment – and nothing he says can change that fact. Hillary Clinton, of course, has her own same-old, same-old handicap to overcome. When they announced their candidacies, I wondered which dynastic surname would prove more toxic. I think we may now have the answer.
Bush increasingly looks annoyed, exasperated and flustered. He often gives the impression that he would rather be anywhere else than slogging to the next rally or debate. The people of South Carolina may decide to put him out of his misery.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.