This is not the race that Jeb wanted to run. The man who swore that he would only run for president if he could run a campaign infused with joy continues to struggle under Trump's barbs. There is little evidence of joy in Jeb's campaign, his demeanor instead is alternately angry, annoyed and fed up. Jeb pronounced when he declared his candidacy that he was willing to lose the nomination if that was what was required to remain a viable candidate in the general election. Of course, Donald Trump understood the silliness of that formulation: you cannot win the general if you do not win the nomination first. So Donald Trump is taking Bush at his word and helping him lose the nomination. This week, Jeb's numbers fell solidly into single digits, while Trump numbers continue to rise.
Jeb's claim that he would prefer to lose the nomination than compromise his principles is admirable in some philosophical sense, but the notion that he will not calibrate his campaign to the tenor of the electorate violates a time-tested mantra for Republican electoral success since Richard Nixon: go to the right in the primaries and to the center in the general election. Of course, a central tenet of that strategy is duplicity. You tell the right wing of the party one thing to win the nomination, you tell the nation something else to win the election. It is exactly that duplicity that appears to have led the Republican primary electorate to reject a host of traditional politicians in favor of the two men now leading in the polls--Donald Trump and Ben Carson--neither of whom has held elective office.
But the world according to centrist Republicans and independents is irrelevant to the Republican primary process, and as much as George H.W. Bush has found great favor with voters as time has passed, conservatives will always see him as the man who violated his sworn pledge and raised taxes, and whose fidelity to the pro-life cause was always in question. To the primary electorate, particularly the evangelical base of the party, I am my father, not my brother would have to be flipped to I am my brother, not my father. And that was the path that Jeb chose. Forget standing on principle, or even showing reasoned judgment, Jeb went so far as to say that his brother would be his primary advisor on foreign policy.
Yet their's is a revisionist history of the times. Just as Trump is vilifying immigrants and playing to the nativist sentiments of the GOP primary electorate, Reagan's campaign was imbued with barely coded racial rhetoric that was abhorrent to New York and New England Republicans, but was effective in solidifying the support of the historically Democrat southern and rural electorate that was first brought into the GOP by Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy. In a campaign strategy orchestrated by Lee Atwater to attract supporters of the segregationist and 1968 presidential candidate George Wallace, Reagan flew to the Nashoba County Fair in Mississippi to demonstrate that he stood with southern whites against the civil rights movement, and he sprinkled his campaign rhetoric with stories vilifying "Cadillac driving welfare queens" and food stamps abuse by blacks. Reagan also scorned the traditional fiscal prudence of the GOP in favor of supply side economics and a tax cutting fervor that Bush famously labeled as "voodoo economics."
Jeb prefers to point to Trump as the cause of his campaign woes, and like his father before him, Jeb seems to be discounting the appeal and effectiveness of an opponent he personally and politically disdains. Yet the obsession with Trump may be masking Jeb's larger problem--which he should have learned from watching his father's defeat in 1980 and victory in 1988--which is that his own conviction that he is the candidate truest to conservative principles will not suffice as a campaign strategy. Donald Trump may not be Ronald Reagan, but the Ronald Reagan that whipped Jeb's father was not the saint of people's imagination either. Jeb might have the better resume, he might be a man of compassion, but neither experience nor compassion are the currencies of the moment.