Election 2020

Seeds of Bush's Downfall Sown at the Start of Campaign

Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at his South Carolina Republican presidential primary rally in Columbia, S.C., Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Jeb Bush gracefully bowed out of the race for the Republican nomination last night after finishing a distant fourth behind Cruz, Rubio, and the winner, Donald Trump.

A year ago, no one in the Bush camp could have imagined this outcome. Jeb Bush had every possible advantage: money, organization, and a name that was instantly recognizable to millions of Republicans. He had a long resume, political and financial contacts in every state, and was the consensus choice of the core money men in the Republican Party.

What happened? This Politico autopsy of the Bush campaign shows that the candidate and his advisors ran a race as if it were still 2000. They  were so out of touch with the majority of the party that they failed to detect the rise of the anti-establishmentarians. Ultimately, they were unable to adopt to the changing political landscape and were crushed by their own hubris and incompetence.

The playbook, hatched by Sally Bradshaw, Mike Murphy and a handful of other Bush confidants in dozens of meetings during the first half of 2015 and described to POLITICO by some of Bush’s closest and most influential supporters, appealed to the Bush family penchant for shock-and-awe strategy. The campaign would commence with six months of fundraising for the “Right to Rise” super PAC and enough muscle to push aside Mitt Romney. There would be a massive, broad-based organizational effort to plant roots in March states at a time when other campaigns were mired in Iowa and New Hampshire. The plan outlined Bush’s positive, future-focused message with an emphasis on his decade-old record of accomplishment as Florida governor.

And it included several pages about the former Florida governor’s case to prosecute against top rivals – dire political threats such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker.

The plan roundly underestimated threats: Bradshaw, his closest advisor and long-time defender, for example, told at least one campaign aide that Marco Rubio wouldn’t challenge Bush. Besides, Bradshaw and other top advisers believed, it would be next to impossible for someone with so little experience to beat him. “They thought there was going to be much more reverence and respect for the fact that Jeb Bush, a Bush, was getting into the race,” said one Florida-based supporter, an alumnus of Jeb Bush’s gubernatorial campaigns and former staffer. “When they got Romney to step aside, they figured everyone else would too.”

Most critically, the playbook, people who have read it tell POLITICO, contained nothing about Donald Trump, who would spend the next excruciating year turning Bush into his personal patrician piñata.

“The rules all changed this year. It was all about taking on the establishment,” said a Republican operative close to the Bush family. “When you’re the son and brother of former presidents, the grandson of a U.S. senator, how do you run in a year like this? It is just a year of personality, not message. All of a sudden, there was no path for him. They just kept falling back on his record as governor, which is all he has—and no one gives a s**t.”

Jeb Bush has no one to blame but himself. He spent $150 million, ultimately wasting a good portion of his resources in states that won’t vote for another month or more. He created a national campaign, but it was formed in a vacuum. He lacked a message, focus, and energy for much of the campaign, finding his voice only after it was too late.

This isn’t the end of the Bush brand in politics. George P. Bush, Texas land commissioner, is seen as a rising star in Texas politics. But having a famous name only gets you so far. The problem for George P. and other members of the Bush family down the line is that the family was never associated with a political movement. Like the Kennedys it was all about wealth, power, and influence, the presidency being seen as something of an inheritance.

Jeb Bush discovered, to his chagrin, that the American people disowned him.