The Twilight of Jeb!

Originally published as the second post on the Journal of American Greatness in February, 2016.

Arising from the collapse of the Bush campaign comes an unmistakable if somewhat disturbing sense of pleasure.  This pleasure goes beyond the schadenfreude of the hard right at the humiliation of a “RINO.”  It is palpable throughout the party and beyond, and it is evident across the spectrum of media coverage.  Even the candidate himself, by all accounts a decent man, seems relieved that his ordeal is over and that he can move on to all the “cool things” a life outside politics has to offer.

No such glee was felt at the exit of Scott Walker, who was for a time considered a similarly strong candidate.  And no such excitement will greet the departure of others as the field narrows.  This striking fact that no one is mourning—and everyone is celebrating—the defeat of Jeb Bush demonstrates that his campaign actually did have a certain significance, although certainly not the significance intended.

Students of campaign history will find peculiar parallels between the 2016 primary and that of 1996, which was delightfully chronicled by Michael Lewis under the Trumpian title Losers.  Lewis at the time was especially drawn to Morry Taylor, an iconoclastic businessman whose principal argument was that a political class composed of idiots too incompetent to succeed in business was driving the country to ruin.  Taylor’s campaign, of course, appealed to few besides Lewis in 1996—the world was younger then.

However, if Taylor was Lewis’ hero, his most pathetic character was Lamar Alexander, whose banners read Lamar! and whose expensive, pre-packaged and ultimately hollow campaign perfectly presaged Jeb! 2016.  It is not coincidental that the destitution of both candidacies was revealed from the start by the false familiarity and artificial exclamation points.  Lamar! was the brainchild of Mike Murphy, current manager of Bush’s superpac.  Lewis quotes Morry Taylor describing Murphy, his former neighbor turned consultant, as “a fat little kid from next door who didn’t know anything you don’t know and who is now making hundreds of thousands of dollars telling Lamar Alexander what you think.”

Within this Trumpian character sketch is precisely what motivates the electorate’s euphoria at the unraveling of Jeb! 2016: everyone can see that the so-called elite is really quite stupid!  And they are losers!

Bush is losing not because his policies are too moderate or even because he is supported by the “establishment.”  He is losing because he believes in the establishment.  Everything he says and everything he does reveals him to be the devotee of an elite that is thoroughly discredited to everyone except itself.  And the elite, in creating, funding and advising Jeb! 2016, revealed how deserving of discredit it is.

Who but a paid political consultant could be so politically tone-deaf as to believe that attacking Rubio’s missed Senate votes would be a popular issue?  Yet Bush, apparently unable to think outside the narrow circles of beltway conventional wisdom, deployed this line and effectively ended his already flailing campaign.  He exposed his own lack of judgment in listening to such advice, and, more significantly, the intellectual bankruptcy of his highly paid, supposedly elite, advisors.  This exposure of an elite wholly bereft of quality underlies the exhilaration experienced at the end of the Bush campaign—the only joyful thing to come out of Jeb! 2016.

Pundits with nothing better to write about complain, as they always do, that this election has favored sharp sound soundbites over substantive policy.  But what constitutes substantive policy?  What innovative or even interesting ideas did the Bush campaign propose?  After months of campaigning, he could not articulate a coherent view on immigration, education, Iraq, or even fantasy football.  Bush, like any candidate, was called substantive only insofar as his positions comported with the views of the political, financial, and intellectual elite.

And the critical difference between 1996 and 2016 is that Morry Taylor’s message has found an audience.  Indeed, insofar as a candidate is seen to personally endorse the elite consensus (which is distinct from simply being endorsed by the elite), that candidate will struggle to inspire any broader constituency.  This might say something about today’s elections or today’s electorate, but it certainly says something about today’s political elite.  Ben Bernanke can call people know-nothings, but what, exactly, in Ben Bernanke’s record should merit unquestioning confidence?  Is it really so absurd that a meaningful segment of the public would prefer candidates offering little beyond opposition to Davoisie conventional wisdom over the vacuous “substance” and mindless conformity of the elite consensus?

Quoting Lewis again:

For the last four years Lamar has been raising money by telling people he is the only Republican in America who can beat Bill Clinton.  He talks endlessly about his ‘vision.’  He squints as he does this; he sees it; the trouble is, no one else does….his pitch is that he is not someone else—he’s not Washington, he’s not a negative advertiser, above all he’s not Clinton.  But of course he is Washington, he is negative, and, above all, he is Clinton….To which segment of the American population does this appeal?…Alexander [only] attracts people who use niceness to get what they want.

The same phenomenon is present as well on the Democratic side.  Hillary may attain the nomination for lack of an opponent, but the obvious absence of enthusiasm for her candidacy is the result not only of endless scandal but also the inescapable sense that she represents and is personally invested in an elite status quo which commands no respect.

It is difficult to ignore the Weberian aspects of the present election.  The Clintons, of course, have always embodied the late Weberian political types—specialists without spirit and voluptuaries without heart—but this time the feeling is not confined to them alone.  The gulf between charisma and expertise has widened conspicuously since 1996, and the impression that electoral popularity now seems inversely proportionate to political experience cannot but disquiet.

It is tempting to see a return to an earlier and in many ways more vibrant condition of American politics—what Weber called “government by dilettantes,” in which voters prefer “having people in office whom we can spit upon, rather than a caste of officials who spit upon us.”  Indeed, after the experience of the last twenty years, in which the elite consensus has been wrong about seemingly every issue of any consequence, it is impossible to avoid the definitive Clintonian question: What difference, at this point, does it make?

— Plautus

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