Jeb Bush’s Collapse Is a Triumph of the Democratic System

The establishment may have anointed him the front-runner, but actual voters have declined to go along.

Jeb Bush speaks during the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado,October 28, 2015.
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
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Peter Beinart
Oct. 29, 2015, 11:34 a.m.

If you’re feeling sorry for Jeb Bush after Wednesday night’s CNBC debate, don’t. His defenestration by Marco Rubio should make even those who support neither of them for president smile. It’s a sign that maybe, just maybe, the system still works.

Were America’s presidential elections more democratic, Bush would never have been a serious candidate to begin with. From the beginning, the strategy behind his candidacy had little to do with actual voters. As Politico reported, it was to leverage his father and brother’s fundraising network to get donors to “write the biggest checks you can and create a massive pile of cash to scare away other candidates.” In January, Jeb launched his campaign by creating a super PAC designed to raise unlimited amounts of money from the super rich. For seven months, he maintained this “laser focus” on money, holding fundraisers that reached $100,000 per person. All the while, he lied to journalists, telling them he hadn’t decided whether to run because admitting the truth would have made it illegal for him to solicit these vast sums.

It seemed to work. When Mitt Romney decided not to run, perhaps in part because Bush had stolen so many of his donors, The Washington Post declared that “Jeb Bush has become the GOP front-runner.”

But from early on, actual voters resisted. A Bloomberg poll in April found that 42 percent of potential Republican primary voters said they would never vote for Jeb Bush while only 14 percent said they would seriously consider him. In an Iowa focus group in May, a retired saleswoman named Lucy said America “should not be run like a family business.” A retired teacher named Craig said, “It’s just such a negative connotation when you see that Bush name, that people get, they get turned off.”

Jeb claimed he was not his father or brother—at least when he wasn’t hosting fundraisers starring them—and in one crucial respect, he was right: They were better campaigners.

In May, Jeb said he would have invaded Iraq even knowing the country had no weapons of mass destruction, a position even most conservatives consider absurd. Then, asked to clarify his view on the war, he gave four different answers in four days, thus compounding his initial mistake.

In July he said, “people need to work longer hours.” Later that month he announced, “We need to figure out a way to phase out” Medicare “and move to a new system.” In August, he told a South Carolina audience that, “I’m not sure we need half a billion dollars in funding for women’s health programs.” And then, speaking the day after a fatal shooting at a community college in Oregon, he said, “Look, stuff happens.”

By then, national polls showed Jeb at 4 percent, half the level enjoyed by Carly Fiorina. An October study of Jeb’s donors found that only 7 percent had donated less than $200, compared with 72 percent for Donald Trump and 74 percent for Ben Carson.

The media crowned him front-runner on the assumption that he could turn that money into votes. 

In the coming days, journalists will gorge themselves on stories about Jeb’s collapse. But collapse implies that Jeb had much real support to begin with. What he had was money. The media crowned him front-runner on the assumption that he could turn that money into votes. Republicans, it was assumed, are orderly and hierarchical. Once the party elite gets behind someone—even someone like John McCain or Mitt Romney whom grassroots conservatives distrust—the unwashed eventually fall in line.

Not this time. All September, Trump tormented Bush. Now Rubio has flattened him, too. On a human level, it’s painful to watch. But structurally, it’s kind of wonderful. Maybe Republican voters are responding to outsiders. Maybe they’re responding to demagogues. Maybe they’re just responding to candidates who put on a good show. But in the process, they are repudiating the elite assumption that the actual primaries are merely an extension of the “invisible primary.” They are insisting that even in the age of super PACs, money and votes are not the same.

If reaffirming that maxim requires watching Jeb Bush be humiliated by his former protégé as millions of Americans look on, it’s a small price to pay.

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