Jeb Bush was supposed to be the smarter brother of the Bush dynasty. After 8 grueling years of an intellectually diminutive president, it seemed impossible to imagine that Dubya’s younger brother Jeb wouldn’t be at least a bit brighter. While Jeb may be nominally more book smart than George W., who famously did not read reports, in one crucial way, Dubya was the smarter brother.
As Jeb’s Campaign Implodes, It Is Clear That Jeb Lacks Dubya’s Street Smarts.
George W. Bush understood the gutter. He understood the rats, and he made himself the cat in the darkest alleys. He understood how to charm the Republican establishment’s most ruthless people and get them to do his bidding. In return, he provided them with cover to carry out the kind of looting and cheating that they live for. George W. Bush was like Al Capone. He was not intellectually curious in the least, but his instinct made him fluent in a gut language of debts, loyalty and payback. Like Capone, W. Bush made himself emperor of the petty thieves and they made him the most dangerous man in town.
George W. Bush dealt with everyone with either a carrot or a stick. Loyalty he cultivated above all else. In the twilight of his administration, as some of the most caustic abuse of power scandals since Watergate blew open, Bush refused to fire the perpetrators who were close aides and confidants. Bush let Attorney General Alberto Gonzales fight with Congress, while he was famously unable to “recall” anything, for 7 months until he resigned over charges that he oversaw a partisan purge of federal attorneys. Bush pardoned Dick Cheney’s top aide Scooter Libby after Libby was convicted of perjury and lying to the FBI about the revealing of CIA agent Valerie Plame, in an act of political retribution.
Though his friends could do no wrong, W. Bush relentlessly sought the destruction of his enemies. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign responded to McCain’s primary challenge by smashing his reputation with a sledgehammer. In South Carolina, Karl Rove used push polling insinuating that McCain was “crazy, a traitor, he fathered a black child.” Internationally, the most important thing Bush accomplished was killing Saddam Hussein, “who tried to kill my dad.” Bush let the whole world know, especially Iran and North Korea, that any leader could swing from a short rope if they crossed Dubya. Bush was far more comfortable threatening rogues than parsing diplomacy with statesmen.
These may not be ‘good’ characteristics, but W. Bush proved that they are qualities that help a Republican get and keep the biggest chair in Washington. Jeb demonstrably lacks these qualities. He has alienated friends and coddled enemies. The two candidates in the race giving Jeb the most troubles may be in the race because Jeb pissed off the wrong people.
In 2004, Jeb vetoed $2 million in Florida state funds that was allocated to build the Braman Breast Cancer Institute. Miami billionaire Norman Braman, whose name would have been on the institute, and whose reputation would have improved immensely, was not amused. He has “nursed a grudge against Bush” ever since. Incidentally, Braman is the primary donor to the Marco Rubio campaign. With his help, Rubio evolved from Jeb’s star protegé to Jeb’s main establishment threat in the primaries. Donald Trump loves to tweak Bush about his inability to secure Rubio’s loyalty.
In the second debate, Jeb accused Donald Trump of trying to corrupt him when he was governor of Florida. Trump flatly denied it, but was lying. Trump donated to the Bush family, then wanted Jeb to clear the way for the Donald to build casinos in Florida. Jeb didn’t let him, and apparently gave him nothing, which caused Trump to harbor something of a vendetta against Bush. Denying Trump the ability to build casinos may have been the ‘right’ thing to do. But W. would have made a loyal friend with deep pockets whereas Jeb made a powerful enemy who is now eating his lunch. That’s why W. was president and Jeb won’t be.
Despite the myriad threats against Jeb’s campaign, he has refused to go on the offensive against Rubio, and whined about how he would rather not be president than get in the mud with Trump. He hasn’t cultivated a pack of loyalists and a team of ruthless knife-fighters. Flying above the fray is wise if you’re the front-runner, but it’s way too late for that for Jeb. Jeb doesn’t have street smarts at all and doesn’t seem to even understand why that’s a problem for him as a politician.
It’s possible that no politician could have lugged George W. Bush’s baggage all the way back to the White House. But simply being a Bush provided Jeb with immense institutional advantages that could have cleared the field. He has failed to capitalize on them because he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Jeb thinks he’s too good to bring a knife into a dark alley or keep close some friends who will do it for him. Dubya made himself master of the gutter, and the gutter made Dubya king.