What Happened to Jeb Bush?

by Stuart Rothenberg February 9, 2016 · 9:08 AM EST

It must be more than a decade ago when I got a glimpse of the man often referred to as “George W. Bush’s smarter, younger brother.”

Charlie Cook and I were scheduled to speak to a group of Florida business leaders during lunch, but before we began our shtick, the state’s sitting governor, Jeb Bush, was to offer some remarks.

Bush was running late that day, so when he finally arrived he blew into the room like a summer rain squall. He sat down, a bit out of breath as I remember it, and quickly turned to the group’s executive director to ask what he should talk about.

“How about talking about your education reform agenda?” Sure, said the governor without hesitation, getting up quickly and walking to the podium. He wasted little time jumping into a discussion of his education reform agenda, offering thoughtful, policy-filled comments about the challenges the state faced in education and ideas about what Florida could do.

I don’t remember any of the details of his presentation, but I do recall my impressions of him. Bush sounded smart, serious and enthusiastic. He showed energy and passion. He was entirely comfortable talking policy. And he knew his numbers.

No wonder, I thought, that the second son of former President George H.W. Bush had a reputation as someone who was bright, if a little wonky, and impressive. Yes, he certainly had the makings of a future president, though his path was not at all easy.

Fast forward to about a week ago. I was leaving another event when an attendee, who was employed by Boston’s Northeastern University, approached me with an anecdote. He told me that he had been at a Donald Trump event in New Hampshire recently, and he had been lucky enough to be able to ask a question of the presidential hopeful.

“What are your thoughts about education?” the man asked Trump, giving the candidate plenty of freedom to address the subject any way that he wanted.

“I love education,” roared Trump effusively, according to the questioner. “And when I’m president, I’ll make it even better.”  Trump then observed that teachers love him, and he noted that he attended the highly regarded Wharton school.

That’s what Trump, who finished second in the GOP’s Iowa caucuses to Bush’s sixth, had to say about education.

Why has Jeb Bush, who started his bid for the Republican nomination with so much money and so many loyal friends, flopped? Let me count the ways.

Bush has plenty of credentials, but they are less valuable this year. The Bush brand, once strong, was severely damaged by his brother, and Jeb himself doesn’t fit the times, when long political bloodlines and deep establishment connections are liabilities, not assets. He is, to put it bluntly, old news at a time when Republicans are looking for something new and different. For many Republicans, his name told them everything they needed to know about him and his candidacy.

How else can anyone explain Jeb’s high negatives and the large percentage of Republicans who say they could never vote for him?

The January 26-29 Des Moines Register poll found 53 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers had unfavorable feelings about Bush, the highest percentage of those tested and higher than Trump’s 47 percent. And Bush eventually drew just 5 percent at the caucuses even after he and the super PAC supporting him spent millions of dollars in voter contact.

Jeb Bush’s numbers are much worse than a June 1999 Washington Post poll of adults that had George W. Bush leading the  race for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination with 49 percent, or an October 1999 Marist College national survey of Republicans, which found Bush leading the GOP contest with 62 percent.

Yes, George W. Bush had a huge name identification advantage then. Jeb started off with the same name, but it did not carry the goodwill that it once did.

The former Florida governor has had another problem. Jeb’s style is a lot like his father’s. At times, he comes across as goofy and awkward. He isn’t the most fluid speaker, and he can appear tentative.

Given Marco Rubio’s fluid speaking style, Ted Cruz’s self-confidence, Carly Fiorina’s quickness, Trump’s bullying and Chris Christie’s toughness, Jeb doesn’t come off particularly well in debates, which have become a focal point in the presidential nominating process.

Jeb is a policy geek at a time when many Republicans seem to value ideology, passion and soundbites more than a measured discussion of issues. Jeb doesn’t do angry very well, and while he has attacked his opponents during the debates, he simply doesn’t seem to relish it.

Clearly, Jeb’s money has done little to move his poll numbers, and even if he happens to surprise observers with a strong finish in New Hampshire, it is very difficult to see him as his party’s nominee.

Only one Republican hopeful will be nominated, of course, so Bush will have plenty of company if and when he loses. But the magnitude of that loss, and the way so many Republicans dismissed him without even considering his assets, is remarkable.