Jeb! Agonistes: Being the sad and gruesome history of a frontrunner who never …

1 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Bush struggles as Clinton shines in dynastic battle for the White House.

Watching Jeb Bush beached amid the flotsam and offal of this week’s gruesome Republican debate on CNBC, looking less like a deer in the headlights than like some rubbery deep-sea creature out of its element, severely decompressed and struggling to breathe, I almost had an emotion.

Jeb Bush’s arrival at a waterside sandwich shop in Portsmouth on Thursday was supposed to mark the beginning of his family’s return to the White House.In 2004, the area was hit hard by Hurricane Charley and, through Bush’s leadership, they were able to unite school facilities and resources to provide classes for students from both schools. I’m not claiming that the GOP frontrunner who never was merits our pity or compassion, and I don’t want to default to clichéd utterances about how Jeb! seems like a decent guy despite his disagreeable positions and sinister backers. We have the most money.” Sadly, elections in America are not about the candidate with the best ideas or policies but the candidate who has the most cash.

Hoisted behind the platform where Bush would speak was a large sign that said: “Jeb can fix it.” But after an unsteady performance in Wednesday’s Republican debate, Bush found himself defending how he planned to fix not the nation but his floundering campaign, which just a few months ago had roared to life with a promise of “shock and awe”, through its combination of fundraising prowess and family fortune. “How do you think you did in the debate?” a reporter shouted as Bush pushed his way through the scrum of cameras and smartphones. His face steeled. “I did great.” Speaking to voters outside the sandwich shop, Bush appeared cowed – confounded by a primary race led by a jeering billionaire and a subdued former neurosurgeon. “I wish I could talk as well as some of the people on the stage, the big personalities on the stage,” the party’s former frontrunner lamented. “But I’m a doer.” After the event, Bush was again encircled by journalists and photographers, at the edge of the parking lot where he spoke. The home state swing-through comes after what’s been largely considered a poor performance at the most recent GOP debate, in which Bush and one-time protegé Senator Marco Rubio traded blows over the latter’s Senate attendance. (TM and © Copyright 2015 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. If he were such a good guy, maybe he’d have walked away from his family dynasty and the political party it has perverted and done something useful with his life.

Still, there was something interesting going on during and after Wednesday evening’s dreadful spectacle, something beyond the apparent end of the Bush family’s quest for a third president and the anointment of Marco Rubio, Jeb’s Sunshine State nemesis, as the new favorite of the Republican establishment. (That’s conventional wisdom, not a prediction of any sort. We’re doing fine.” This week, a two-hour drive away in Littleton, New Hampshire, Bush’s would-be challenger, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton was holding an economic roundtable at a high school. A young man in the audience asked how she intended to end corruption when she and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, have been dogged by scandals from Whitewater to Benghazi and her use of a private email server. We don’t have to like Jeb Bush, or agree with anything he has ever said or anything he will ever do, to see him as a doomed literary character blinded by pride and arrogance, abruptly forced to recognize (too late!) that the fate written in the stars for him is not the one he expected.

Bush has been compared to Charlie Brown, after the second or third time Lucy offered him that football, and to Richie Rich the Poor Little Rich Boy, and in both cases the resemblance is striking. Clinton rose to respond. “I wish you’d go back and read the history of the 1990s,” she replied, “because clearly there were unfortunately a lot of partisans who thought that the best way to work with my husband’s administration was through attacks of all kinds, all of which washed out … And I advise you to go back and read my 11 hours of testimony [to the House Select Committee on Benghazi last week]. On a more elevated level, since Republicans claim to know the Bible so well (except for that one guy who’s been too busy playing the role of Moneychanger in the Temple), Bush suggests the enfeebled and self-pitying Samson, at least as depicted in John Milton’s “Samson Agonistes,” after he’s had his hair cut off and his eyes gouged out.

I hope you enjoy it.” In the past few weeks, as Bush has seen his presidential ambitions slip, Clinton has watched her own rise – buoyed by a strong debate showing, a poised performance during the congressional hearing on Benghazi and vice-president Joe Biden’s decision not to enter the race. His God-given strength has turned out to be an illusion, and the supposedly indomitable warrior finds himself “Blind among enemies, O worse than chains.” Milton’s chorus intones, “Thou art become (O worst imprisonment!)/ The Dungeon of thy self,” subjected “to th’unjust tribunals, under change of times,/ And condemnation of the ungrateful multitude.” Changing times and ungrateful multitudes are precisely Jeb’s problem.

As Frank Rich observed earlier this week in New York magazine, the would-be strongman of the GOP field apparently hadn’t noticed until now that this isn’t his father’s Republican Party anymore. Enormous piles of money and the promise of “electability” – just enough primary-season red meat for the right-wing zealots, just enough so-called moderation to compete with Hillary Clinton in the swing states – were supposed to quiet the grumbling and smooth the path to victory, as they had for Mitt Romney and John McCain, not to mention Jeb’s supposedly dumber and less adroit big brother.

But in calls to more than 70,000 primary voters in Iowa, Bush’s campaign identified only 1,200 who said they would support him, according to a memo shown to Bush’s major donors in Houston this week and acquired in full by US News and World Report. Analysts say Bush’s presidential bid is suffering from problems including a lack of enthusiasm, poor debate showings, a crowded Republican field of 13 other candidates … and his last name. “The odds were always against him,” said William G Mayer, professor of political science at Northeastern University. “Even when he was the establishment ‘frontrunner’, he wasn’t much of a frontrunner.” Mayer said Bush was both hurt and helped by his family name. Among fundraisers it has proved invaluable but among voters, especially Republicans who blame his brother George W Bush for tarnishing the party’s brand, it is still toxic, Mayer said.

If only, some of those guys are still telling themselves, we had gone with Rick Santorum last time. (Who is actually still running or has recently quit, but in either case no one noticed.) Or with Pat Buchanan, back in whatever-the-hell year that was! Bush’s supporters have been left wondering why their candidate, a two-term governor of Florida, has lagged behind contenders with no experience in government. “If you cleared the stage a bit and voters were left with a choice between Ben Carson, Donald Trump and Jeb Bush, then who would they pick?” said Susan Shasteen, a resident of Florida who attended Bush’s event in New Hampshire while vacationing in the area. Until that point, Clinton’s campaign had struggled to shed the perception that it lacked momentum even though the former secretary of state maintained a firm grasp on the top spot in national polls. “I’m not running for my husband’s third term. Donald Trump’s jibes about Bush’s “low-energy” campaign have hit home, in a way they haven’t quite with Ben Carson, because it’s so obvious the poor bastard’s heart isn’t in it. This summer, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders began to gain traction with his brash style and criticism of what he calls “grotesque” levels of income inequality.

They’ll wake up and they’ll realize who the good candidate is, which is, of course, George Bush,” Barré said, before immediately correcting herself with an embarrassed laugh. As Rich notes, much of that history is recent, and stems from the four presidential campaigns waged by his father and his brother, in which Lee Atwater and Karl Rove (respectively) sought out and galvanized the most retrograde, most atavistic and most paranoid tendencies in the Republican voter base.

But the GOP overlords could only control or channel the zombie virus they had unleashed for so long, and at some point – we could argue about when exactly this happened – it invaded the Republican brain and took control of the organism. What Jeb has failed to grasp, in his Samson-like blindness and self-imprisonment, is that today’s Republican Party bears almost no relationship to the reasonably coherent center-right pro-business party of Nixon and Eisenhower (and, for crying out loud, of Jacob Javits and Edward Brooke). Sometimes it strikes the old poses and murmurs the old catchphrases, but whenever it opens its mouth to speak, all you can hear is a horrible insect buzz. But to understand the GOP’s internal contradictions, and the dangers posed by its rotting, shambling undead carcass, I suspect we need to reach even further back. All the crazy stuff found in the 21st-century Republican Party – the racism and the anti-immigrant fervor and the hyper-patriotism and the mistrust of big cities and big government and the perverse idolatry of capitalism among the white working class – goes way back in American history.

As historian James McPherson describes the pre-Civil War political climate in his magisterial “Battle Cry of Freedom,” all those ingredients were present. The Whigs, who were soon to split over slavery and give birth to Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party, were the party of bankers and capitalists – but also the party of a strong central government and massive public investments in railroads, canals, highways and public education, which they saw as the engine of social and economic progress. On a less savory level, the Whigs also had pronounced overtones of white Protestant nativism and anti-Catholic bigotry, as McPherson puts it, and reflected elite concerns that the newcomers flooding into America’s cities would change the nation’s fundamental Anglo-Saxon character. On the other side stood the Democratic Party molded by Andrew Jackson, which embraced the new arrivals from Catholic Europe and championed the cause of industrial workers and small farmers against the “bloodsuckers” and “parasites” of monopoly capitalism and the New York banks. Democrats stood with the “outsiders” who had been left behind by the Industrial Revolution, and angrily denounced the worsening economic inequality that left the top 5 percent of the white male population holding 53 percent of the wealth in 1860, while the bottom half held just 1 percent. (I know, right?

Dick novel, uncannily familiar yet totally off.) In most material respects, those Democrats were much further left than today’s attenuated, conflict-averse, Wall Street-friendly party. Yet as McPherson acridly observes, the Democrats’ “professed egalitarianism was for whites only”; they were viciously and overtly racist in the North, and vigorously supported slavery in the South. Chattel slavery is no more, but its legacy lingers on and the underlying cultural and political questions that divided the nation 150 years ago still plague us today. Our problem now is that the Republican Party has managed to position itself on both sides of that ideological divide, as impossible as that sounds, while the Democrats do not clearly represent either. He thought he was running for president in the boring, hawkish, sanctimonious and innately cautious Republican Party of his parents and grandparents, the one favored by generations of bank vice presidents and hardware-store proprietors and Presbyterian ministers.

Or, more likely, he pretended to think that, and believed that his plutocrat backers could stuff the empty carapace of that party with enough money to make it look somewhat convincing. Jeb’s pathetic fallacy lies in refusing to see or admit or confront the true consequences of the change that has been a long time coming, a change that his caste and his family did much to create. One might suggest – as even a number of non-insane Republicans have suggested — that a party so enthusiastically committed to all the most hateful and destructive tendencies in American politics, even when they overtly contradict each other, is a nonsensical and incoherent enterprise that’s doomed to fail. Liberals have been confidently forecasting Republican doomsday for decades now, while the reanimated GOP, stuffed with Kochian cash, has built an impregnable congressional majority, paralyzed the legislative process and pushed the national policy agenda ever further to the right.

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