This Single Jeb Bush Moment From 1994 Explains Why His Presidential Campaign Is Failing
The sputtering failure of Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign has been one of the biggest stories of the 2016 cycle. In rationalizing Jeb’s unfortunate fate, observers have cited factors like the the rise of Donald Trump and the drastic ways campaigns have changed over the last decade. However, a debate from the 1994 Florida governor’s race shows remarkable similarities between Bush's problems 20 years ago and his problems now, which suggests that his limits extend beyond the circumstances of 2016.
In 1994 Jeb! was a fresh-faced, 41-year-old son of the last Republican president who was running for political office for the first time. His opponent was incumbent Democratic Florida Governor “Walkin’ Lawton” Chiles, who got that nickname for spending three months walking across the state.
Early in the debate, the two started arguing over who was more pro-death-penalty (Democrats were a lot more conservative in the mid-1990s than they are now). Chiles criticized Bush for running an ad he felt was disingenuous, and the manner in which he did so will be very familiar to anyone who watched Bush’s infamous clash with Marco Rubio in late 2015.
“You ran that ad ‘til your polls started telling you you were taking a beating on it,” a smirking Chiles said, “and you’re still taking a beating on it. It was a mistake, you shouldn’t have done it.” This is strikingly similar to the language Rubio used to rebut Bush just a few months ago — a moment which, like the Chiles diss, elicited thunderous applause from the audience. When Bush disparaged Rubio’s Senate voting record on stage, Rubio retorted with a reference to John McCain’s 2000 campaign, of which Bush had spoken very highly.
“I don’t remember you ever complaining about John McCain’s vote record,” Rubio said. “The only reason you’re doing it now is because we’re running for the same position and someone has convinced you that attacking me is gonna help you.” See what Rubio did there? Like Chiles, he called out Jeb in extremely blunt terms for being a craven political operator. That attack itself is a bit unfair — anyone running for any office makes these sorts of political calculations all the time — but as both Rubio and Chiles realized, this tactic works especially well on Jeb Bush.
For one, it reaffirms the idea that Bush is the spoiled son of a political dynasty who can buy his way into office with high-priced political consultants. Moreover, from a personality standpoint, Bush is just unequipped to deal with this criticism. In both of those debates, Bush responded to the attacks by smiling lamely and shaking his head before fading away into the background. The lack of passion and fire in his reactions only reinforces the idea that Bush is more of a well-funded political object than an impassioned human who wants to improve the public’s well-being.
To the shock of his family, Jeb lost that 1994 race. Meanwhile, his brother George pulled off an upset and won the Texas governorship the same year. It’s been reported that the Bush family originally favored Jeb to run for the presidency (though George H. W. Bush denies this), and many politicos insist that if Jeb had won in 1994, he would have been the Republican presidential nominee in 2000. Instead, Chiles defeated Bush in a squeaker, and Jeb had to wait another four years before winning the Florida governorship.
What all of this shows is that Jeb’s political weaknesses transcend Rubio, Trump, his brother’s legacy, or any other external factor that’s been credited with his failure this cycle. Bush simply does not have the ability, as a person, to effectively disprove the worst images of himself. Even worse, his attempts to do so only end up reinforcing said images.
Chiles realized this in 1994, Rubio realized it in 2015, and in the two decades in between, Jeb has not been able to find a solution to this problem. The GOP establishment and the Bush family may want to consider the fact that Jeb simply isn’t a good enough candidate to win. He wasn’t in 1994, and 2016 isn’t looking much better for him.