The “official” entry of Jeb Bush into the Republican presidential race leaves an important unanswered question hanging over the race. The former governor of Florida had announced earlier, with the usual drumroll, that if he became a candidate he would mount a different kind of campaign. He would be the happy warrior. He had never liked the grit and grime of take-no-prisoners campaigning or the gotcha! politics characteristic of recent Republican contests. He just wouldn’t be a part of a campaign like that.
He would be the adult in the race. He wouldn’t cozy up to conservatives even though they make up the base of the Grand Old Party. He wouldn’t waver in support of immigration reform or Common Core educational standards. He would talk honestly about issues and let the cards fall where they would. His wise men even insisted that taking a few hits in the primaries might make him a stronger candidate in the autumn of ‘16.
This happy talk was accompanied by a “shock and awe” campaign finance blitzkrieg that would put so much money into the Bush campaign account that others would be so intimidated that no one would even try to compete with him. It all started well, with money flowing into the Bush operation as if it were a Clinton Foundation on steroids. At one point his wise men said they would limit contributions to his super PAC to $1 million per customer lest the public become alarmed by the fundraising overkill.
Then things began to go wrong. His competitors didn’t get out, but multiplied. Polls in the early-voting states revealed that he couldn’t count on support from the activists and establishment figures. Worse, his fundraising, though formidable, began to tail off. He proved under the pressure that he was neither a spellbinding orator nor adept at answering questions. He struggled to adjust to the politics he had gradually abandoned in the 12 years since he left the state house in Tallahassee. The young U.S. senator he had mentored, and whose support he thought he had, turned out to suffer the same fever for the presidency and would take him on in Florida.
Now the warrior is not so happy, and is becoming the regular presidential wannabe. He has shaken up his campaign staff, bringing in the campaigners familiar with grit and grime and who understand what Mr. Dooley meant when he said “politics ain’t beanbag.” Opposition research and negative attacks to undermine an opponent might work better than policy wonkery, after all. His announcement was accompanied by announcements in Florida that the other Cuban-American elected officials would be with Jeb, not Marco Rubio. Jeb himself hinted that a few sharp elbows might be thrown before it’s all over. No more Mr. Nice Guy.
The nice people who expected Jeb Bush to be different, and not like the others who have been sharpening their spikes in anticipation of a street fight, might not get the above-the-fray candidate they were hoping for. Jeb more and more looked like just another not-so-happy warrior.
The stakes in the general election are higher than usual, and if the Republicans field a candidate who can win that election they will resist the temptation to characterize their competitors as evil. Ronald Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment — “speak no ill of another Republican” — has gone the way of the Marquess of Queensberry. The regular Republican contenders, who now include Jeb, shorn of warm piety, must keep their eyes on the prize. The prize they seek is the White House, not the destruction of rival Republicans.