This was supposed to be Jeb Bush’s race.
Then, Donald Trump happened.
Soon, all the money in the world seemed as if it couldn’t save Bush’s tailspin. He went from roughly 18% to a low-point near 3% in early January, according to the RealClearPolitics average of various polls.
Now, he’s out of the race altogether after a disappointing fourth-place finish in last Saturday’s South Carolina primary.
Bush’s biggest problem was that he couldn’t win over the increasingly ideological, conservative voters needed to carry a Republican primary — a group that has been largely gathered by Trump, the frontrunner, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
His more “establishment” appeal and his past political experience did not convince many of the grassroots Republican voters that he’d “make America great again” as Trump promises.
But Bush wasn’t the only member of his family who had to deal with this exact problem on the presidential circuit. He wasn’t even the only one who has had to face the “make America great again” slogan.
Bush’s 2016 presidential bid was a somewhat similar story to that of his father, George H.W. Bush, when the elder Bush launched a failed 1980 run for office.
That’s when Ronald Reagan, the favoured leader of the more conservative branch of the Republican Party, ran on bringing the US back to prior glories.
By 1980, George H.W. Bush had held a wide variety of political offices in his distinguished career. He was a former two-term congressman from Texas, US ambassador to the United Nations, head of the Republican National Committee, chief liaison in China, and director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He served in both the Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford administrations.
There are striking similarities between that campaign and Jeb Bush’s, as made apparent in “Destiny and Power,” Jon Meacham’s recently released biography of George H. W. Bush.
Bush’s 1980 run for president had been in the works since President Jimmy Carter replaced Ford in early 1977. Bush’s early campaign platform was that he’d be “a president we won’t have to train,” which was a shot at both Carter and his chief competitor, Reagan.
Jeb Bush frequently took a similar, two-sided shot at his primary foes. The younger Bush argued in his campaign America shouldn’t elected another first-term senator as president, which called out both President Barack Obama, a former senator, and both Rubio and Cruz.
But experience wasn’t as important as ideology in the 1980 Republican primary race, much as has been the case in 2016.
Movement conservatives accepted Reagan as one of their own, and were willing to forgive — or sometimes even ignore — his occasional lapses from the conservative creed. No such mercy was on offer for Bush. His inability to project great conviction, even when he was, in fact, greatly committed to a given principal, was a perennial problem. Reagan could nearly do no wrong in their eyes, Bush could nearly do no right.
George H.W. Bush’s “inability to project great conviction” in 1980 was parallel to his son’s “low-energy” label in 2016. Bush was painted as weaker than Reagan in 1980, while his son was painted as weaker than Trump in 2016.
And, just like with Reagan in 1980, Trump has so far been able to retain his hardline support — even when lapses from the conservative platform are brought forth by opponents — because he has identified with grassroots opposition to the Washington establishment.
A campaign memo from the 1980 primary race provided to Meacham read: “Bush has to be ‘acceptable’ to Right Wing — not necessarily ‘favourite of.'” Newsweek wrote: Bush “is hoping that voters will perceive him as more ‘reasonable’ than Reagan, not simply more liberal.”
It didn’t happen.
As Meacham wrote, “Reagan’s image of strength was garnering more support” after “a series of polls showed Americans were becoming hawkish” due to conflicts in both Iran and Afghanistan.
After the Paris terror attacks last November — which came a day after Trump said at a rally that he would “bomb the s—” out of the Islamic State terror group — polls showed that Trump was the favourite of the greatest number of Republicans when it came to fighting terrorism at 33%. Jeb Bush garnered just 9%.
In addition, Jeb Bush, who raised tens of millions from the financial elite, wasn’t been able to shake labels that he was the rich man’s candidate. Neither could his father in 1980.
William Loeb, then-publisher of the Manchester Union-Leader, wrote that George H.W. Bush was “the candidate of the self-appointed elite in this country.”
The elder Bush would end up getting throttled in his race against Reagan. Although Bush won Iowa, Reagan took 44 states in the end.
It wasn’t a total wash for Bush then, however. He would end up serving as Reagan’s vice president for eight years before winning the presidency in 1988.
At the time, Trump had suggested to a Bush adviser that he would be willing to serve as Bush’s vice president, Meacham wrote. The elder Bush called Trump’s offer “strange and unbelievable.”