If you (rightly) think that Donald Trump has made some bizarro remarks during this bizarro – and still young – presidential campaign – get a load of what his Republican rival Jeb Bush has just said:
“If this election is about how we’re going to fight to get nothing done, then … I don’t want any part of it. I don’t want to be elected president to sit around and see gridlock just become so dominant that people literally are in decline in their lives. That is not my motivation….I’ve got a lot of really cool things I could do other than sit around, being miserable, listening to people demonize me and me feeling compelled to demonize them. That is a joke. Elect Trump if you want that.”
Talk about pissy! This kind of “I’m taking my ball and going home” bellyaching sounds an awful lot like a prelude to a withdrawal – not that you’ll see Big Media journalists trying to suggest Bush’s imminent demise the way they’ve continued to talk up this scenario for (the front-running) Trump. (Check out the panel discussion on yesterday’s edition of Meet the Press for the latest instance.)
Yet even the former Florida governor has acknowledged his fall from inevitability status, and the need to raise his game dramatically to avoid a truly historic implosion. Hence his decision to scrap the national juggernaut model – in favor of a leaner, more focused (and, necessarily, more affordable) campaign apparatus. And of course, this course change has attracted the expected coverage. What’s been neglected, however, is how the message transformation Bush is also counting on seems spectacularly tone – & substance – deaf.
As the Washington Post has reported, “Bush plans to subtly adjust his message by presenting himself as someone who can ‘fix’ a broken Washington and by focusing on national security….” Americans definitely want to see the nation’s dysfunctional governing system repaired.
But a foreign policy-focused presidential run? Please. And not just because, as the conventional wisdom holds, “zeroing in on national security, however, Bush invites a discussion about the Iraq legacy of his brother, former president George W. Bush.” Instead, the main obstacle faced by Jeb! is that his evident international strategy has much less to do with preserving national strategy than with pursuing elitist visions of an American national mission – whose relation to the safety and well-being of the nation’s citizenry is far from obvious. Here’s a new Bush TV ad on the subject:
“America has led the world, and it is a more peaceful world when we’re engaged the right way. We do not have to be the world’s policeman. We have to be the world’s leader. We have to stand for the values of freedom. Who’s going to take care of the Christians that are being eliminated in the Middle East? But for the United States, who? Who’s going to stand up for the dissidents inside of Iran that are brutalized each and every day? But for the United States, who? Who’s gonna take care of Israel, and support them, our greatest ally in the Middle East? But for the United States, no one. No one is capable of doing this. The United States has the capability of doing this, and it’s in our economic and national security interest that we do it. I will be that kind of president and I hope you want that kind of president for our country going forward.”
No one listening to this clarion call can reasonably doubt Bush’s sincerity – even if the “world leader/world policeman” reference suggests some punch-pulling. It’s also hard to deny its emotional appeal, invoking nothing so much as former President John F. Kennedy’s declaration that Americans should and would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
But that’s what Bush doesn’t seem to get. This isn’t 1961. The folly of that hubris has now been tragically exposed. Although they clearly don’t like regular reminders on the nightly news of vast regions of the planet disintegrating into chaos or exploding into anti-Americanism – or both – they’re also now sophisticated enough to understand that overseas disorder isn’t necessarily a harbinger of disaster for this fortunately insulated country. At a minimum, they’re no longer willing simply to trust leaders who describe various interventions, humanitarian and otherwise, as serving the nation’s interests. They’ve learned to say, “Show me.”
Perhaps more important, I’m skeptical that Bush’s big donors regard this pitch as a winning message. If they have the slightest feel for public opinion, they may well conclude instead that it’s what Otter in Animal House memorably called “a really futile and stupid gesture.” And although Jeb Bush may indeed be “just the guy to do it,” that doesn’t sound like an investment they’ll want to keep funding.