Americans hate losers. When they smell failure on you, they back away and avoid eye contact. If you go and turn being a loser into a racket, you’re preying on somebody’s self-righteousness or guilt, and that’s about them. Not you. So any yardstick that measures human behavior says that Jeb Bush should be totally invisible, a name brought up exclusively in the fluorescent wastelands of America’s lesser thinktanks. And yet when Jeb Bush tried to reboot his campaign, and rolled out a new slogan, we all turned our heads. We all noticed.
Why is this? Why the hell do we notice Jeb Bush? He lost a long time ago. He’s nothing. Why notice nothing? If you listen to him talk, the words detune somewhere in between your ears and become a collection of sounds. The kind you hear when Rush Limbaugh has a guest host. An old message with no showmanship. Jeb Bush is the geometry teacher who thinks he can rally his students into passing the final by explaining personal responsibility with affected bombast at 8:30 in the morning, totally unaware that we’re too tired to listen. Jeb Bush could have personally discovered the Fountain of Youth a mile underneath a Winn-Dixie in St. Augustine and we still would not listen.
But when he changes his campaign slogan to something as muted as “Jeb Can Fix It,” we notice. Largely by being smartasses about it, but we still notice. It’s the latest in a virtually campaign-long trend where he staggers into the social media spotlight entirely on the back of his nothingness.
He tanked the debates. He’s polling in the single digits. The big shadowy donors he depends on are moving toward new horses, cracking the old jokes about how Jeb’s going to the glue factory, but you don’t need to know that to know his campaign is ending. You can see it in his body language. He’s been talked into this thing at best; forced into it at worst. And “Jeb Can Fix It,” with its affected working boy folksiness that reminds you of a losing slogan for a crooked small town mayor in a 30 year old Disney film more than a 2015 Presidential campaign, is a triumph of irrelevance that borders on performance art.
It’s almost a given that he doesn’t want to be president. He’s shuffling off the national stage and he didn’t even give us any pyrotechnics on the way out. He’s so boring he doesn’t even have poignant lowlights. He’s from too much money to become Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross. In lieu of blood, we have to subsist on slogans presumably engineered at midnight in a room where the loudest sound is a cigarette being ashed into a cold Styrofoam coffee cup and the last guy out has to lock up and hit the lights in the lobby. It’s all too quiet a failure to be a trainwreck, so why is it so damn compelling?
Because the story didn’t go the way we thought it would. The 2016 race was supposed to be a battle of aristocracies. Another Clinton and another Bush, then we sigh with defeat while we wait for the morning toast, open the curtain above the kitchen sink, and know exactly what the day will bring. “The country’s out of our hands, as usual.” That’s an easy narrative.
But then Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders came in with their respective “punk rock is year zero and we don’t need Led Zeppelin’s guitar solos and leather pants” routines, and that story was over. Jeb Bush never saw it coming, and he had no shot at the thing that matters most in contemporary national politics: narrative control. Meanwhile we stood on the sidelines, our heads cocked over the surprise that despite having two presidents in his family, he literally had no faculties as a presidential contender.
Then gradually Bush’s deficit of personality and presence became more shocking than Trump’s “hold on, you’re serious?” campaign. At least with Trump we can easily visualize him as president. It’s a fascist nightmare, Washington D.C. in embers and the White House converted to militarized luxury housing, but it’s a fascist nightmare we can understand. The dystopia we’re all waiting for. An attempt to picture Bush in the White House conjures images of infirm Nixon cronies in wheelchairs and quiet, meandering conversations about osteoarthritis screwing up their golf swings. A gray void from another time.
On paper the run made sense, but as soon as he opened his mouth, the act was a bomb. Nobody needed his “I moved to Idaho to teach you kids geometry, and I will not let you disrespect me like this” approach to politics. Maybe if you sent him back in time to 1992 (hard) and made his dad drop out (easy) and Clinton drop out (hard) and had him run against Perot somehow, he’d have a shot (maybe), but now he’d need an even bigger miracle: he’d need more than half the Republican field to drop out.
But it’s not his nothingness that makes you notice him. It’s the cognitive dissonance between what he is and what he was supposed to be. If you’re from a political dynasty, you’re supposed to project the assured confidence of a lifer, but Bush just looks confused, like he was following somebody else’s script. The momentum was in place, the shadowy big donors were lined up, and he was supposed to walk into the nomination, but when he took the microphone, he didn’t even pretend to want it.
The impression he creates, routinely, is one of a rich kid who got iced out of family dinner conversations one too many times for not getting the big promotion. The petulant brother who got no goat to George W. Bush’s prodigal son. There is no virtue anywhere in his story, no altruistic component to any of it, just a dull sense of aristocratic obligation. And that mentality can only lead to loss. We don’t laugh at Jeb Bush because he can’t fix it. We laugh because he isn’t even interested in trying.