Jeb Bush Ends Presidential Race

Jeb Bush dropped out of the presidential race on Saturday, ending a quest for the White House that started with a war chest of $100 million, a famous name and a promise of political civility but concluded with a humbling recognition: In 2016, none of it mattered.

No single candidacy this year fell so short of its original expectations. It began with an aura of inevitability that masked deep problems, from Mr. Bush himself, a clunky candidate in a field of gifted performers, to the rightward drift of the Republican Party since Mr. Bush’s time as a consensus conservative in Florida.

“I’m proud of the campaign that we’ve run to unify our country,” Mr. Bush said, his eyes moist, in an emotional speech here Saturday night after his third straight disappointing finish in the early voting states. “The people of Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina have spoken, and I really respect their decision.”

Mr. Bush’s campaign had rested on a set of assumptions that, one by one, turned out to be flatly incorrect: that the Republican primaries would turn on a record of accomplishment in government; that Mr. Bush’s cerebral and reserved style would be an asset; and that a country wary of dynasties would evaluate this member of the Bush family on his own merits.

“We’ve had enough Bushes,” his mother, Barbara Bush, observed prophetically before her son announced his candidacy last summer.

Mr. Bush, 63, the former two-term governor of Florida, failed to inspire Republican primary voters whose mood and needs had changed dramatically since he left government in 2007. In what turned out to be the year of the unconventional outsider, he conducted his campaign as the conventional insider.

Last summer, as Donald J. Trump prepared to declare his candidacy with an incendiary and improvised speech in New York City about the criminal records of immigrants from Mexico, Mr. Bush was in Eastern Europe, meeting with heads of state and delivering calibrated remarks about American diplomacy.

And as he stood on debate stages next to the likes of Mr. Trump and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, Mr. Bush never seemed to convincingly play the fighter figure.

After promising to conduct a “joyful” campaign, Mr. Bush instead found himself locked in an ugly and dejected slog, under gleeful attack from his rivals and heightened scrutiny from the political world he had thought was rooting for him.

In a painful twist of the knife, Mr. Bush was overtaken by his former political protégé, Senator Marco Rubio, whose career he had nurtured in Florida.

But by far his biggest liability, aides and advisers concede, was a pedigree he could do nothing to erase or dilute: He was a Bush through and through, at a time when voters sneered at the political and economic establishment that his family name embodied.

Maria Losito, 65, and her husband, Frank Losito, 65, retirees in Palm City, Fla., said they could not quite bring themselves to support Mr. Bush. “The father was president, the brother was president,” said Ms. Losito. “How do I trust him that he’s going to change things that his father and brother didn’t?”

But Mr. Losito said he felt for Mr. Bush. “It’s sad in a way,” he said, “because he’s pouring all this money in and he’s not getting anywhere.”

The long, slow tumble within the Republican campaign was a nightmare scenario for Mr. Bush, who was skeptical about whether to enter the race in the first place.

A successful business executive in Florida, he had turned his family name and time as governor into a lucrative network of companies and consulting contracts, amassing a net worth in the tens of millions of dollars. His wife, Columba, who never relished politics, seemed ambivalent, and his immediate family was not eager for the scrutiny that a presidential run would invite.

But as 2016 approached, old friends and a powerful network of Bush donors pleaded with him to become a candidate, assuring him they would raise the required money. With astonishing speed and alacrity, they did just that — more than $100 million for the “super PAC” supporting him, contributing to the campaign’s air of confidence and strength.

Still, not even Mr. Bush’s most loyal donors had seen him operate as a candidate in years. And he was rusty.

He stumbled out of the gate — struggling to handle both his famous last name and the legacy of his brother, President George W. Bush, who led the nation into a deeply unpopular war in Iraq to pursue weapons of mass destruction that never materialized.

Mr. Bush promised to campaign as his “own man,” first trying to distance himself from his family and later extolling his mother, father and brother at every turn. When he rolled out a list of foreign-policy advisers, they largely hailed from previous Bush administrations.

In one of his campaign’s lowest moments, he repeatedly bungled a question about whether he would have authorized the 2003 invasion of Iraq, as his brother had, given the intelligence known today. What seemed like the simple and inevitable answer did not arrive for days, after multiple, widely ridiculed attempts.

He was gaffe-prone and awkward on the campaign trail, interrupting his own sentences on stage and appearing nervous and uncomfortable during debates. Mr. Bush seemed at his weakest during the prime-time rumpuses, a problem that became indelible on Oct. 28 in Colorado.

For that contest, Mr. Bush had rehearsed a direct confrontation with Mr. Rubio, his surging disciple, in which he had planned to mock the young lawmaker’s tendency to miss votes in the Senate.

But Mr. Rubio was prepared and turned the attack back on Mr. Bush, leaving Mr. Bush devastated, his aides scrambling and donors confused and angry.

Mr. Bush improved somewhat as a debater, but he never seemed to dominate the heavily watched encounters.

The uneven performances earned Mr. Bush a memorable moniker from Mr. Trump — “low energy,” which the real estate developer repeated at every turn.

But in what many of Mr. Bush’s supporters now say was a strategic error, his campaign did not immediately push back against the schoolyard taunt.

Another error, they concede, was the decision to put Mike Murphy — a nimble and trusted adviser who knew the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses — in charge of Mr. Bush’s super PAC, where he was prohibited by law from coordinating with Mr. Bush and his campaign.

Inside the campaign’s Miami headquarters, few figures had the standing or inclination to challenge Mr. Bush, even as he flailed. Loyal longtime aides, many of whom had never run a presidential election, spoke of “letting Jeb be Jeb” — in the face of mountains of data showing that much of the electorate was not embracing him.

Financial muscle, rather than a lucid message, became the hallmark of Mr. Bush’s political operation. It snatched up marquee consultants and policy advisers. It set up camps across the early states, promising a national operation. It created elaborate, three-dimensional mailers. And it spoke of a “shock and awe” factor intended to spook potential rivals.

Both the campaign and the super PAC supporting it relied heavily on expensive television commercials that never broke through. The ads became a cautionary tale for how little impact such media could have in a raucous and colorful field dominated by Mr. Trump, who boasted of saturating the news so thoroughly that he did not need to pay for many ads.

With Mr. Bush’s prospects dimming, even standard practices in politics, such as relentlessly attacking his rivals, seemed to backfire. When the super PAC intensified its spending on advertising critical of Mr. Rubio, in an attempt to prop up Mr. Bush’s flagging campaign, party elders cried foul, saying it looked like sour grapes.

His once-intimidating financial might evaporated. The smaller donations required to pay the bills of his campaign started to dry up, forcing the campaign to make cuts and dispatch its central staff to the campaign trail.

His team talked of “resets” and rebrandings. Mr. Bush trotted out his mother. Then his brother.

In truth, he grew and improved as a candidate. His manner became both more forceful and freewheeling, impressing voters he met in person.

And after appearing so flustered by Mr. Trump, Mr. Bush recently found a way to cast himself as a serious alternative to him in a country fearful of global terror and economic decline.

But it was not enough.

Mr. Bush liked to explain that the boldfaced exclamation point emblazoned on all of his campaign posters “connotes excitement.”

The problem was that Mr. Bush himself never managed to deliver on that promise.

NYTimes

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