The Return of Jeb Bush

Why the goofy, patrician candidate is finally hitting his stride.

Jeb Bush speaks at a town hall style meeting on Feb. 6, 2016 at the McKelvie Intermediate School in Bedford, New Hampshire.

Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images

BEDFORD, New Hampshire—George W. Bush never really suffered for his sins. But his kid brother sure has. The demise of Jeb Bush has been a source of immeasurable pleasure for, well, nearly everyone. His campaign is a nine-figure boondoggle that suckered cronies from Greenwich and Dallas into investing in a can’t-miss-opportunity. That grating WASP aura of entitlement he wore melted nearly instantly with a choice piece of hectoring about his paucity of energy. Pundits took so much pleasure in Jeb Bush’s plummet that they couldn’t imagine it could ever be reversed.

With his few remaining breaths as a candidate, however, Bush may have a path out from his debacle, an actual shot at the nomination. For months, he tried and failed to crush Sen. Marco Rubio. But he wielded the hatchet like a man who would rather be sailing. What he needed was a wingman. Last night, Gov. Chris Christie, with his bully’s instinct for weakness, baited the golden boy into choking—thereby, relieving Bush of all the throbbing pressure to stage a miraculous New Hampshire comeback. 

Nobody—not the media, not the GOP establishment—can now consider Rubio a fait accompli. Republicans can see the fear in Rubio’s eyes, and it has panicked them, confirming all their nagging anxieties. There was a reason that the party has resisted its urge to fully rally around the perfect paper candidate.

As Republicans scrounge for their center-right tribune, they will find themselves coming full circle. Christie has no cash and no organization beyond New Hampshire. Kasich is out-of-synch with his party; his moderation won’t play outside a few suburban pockets. Which only leaves one.

The Republican establishment was on the brink of immolating Bush for wasting its money and cutting such a pathetic figure. But donors will hold off cashiering Bush, even if he finishes in the middle of the New Hampshire pack. Unlike his center-right rivals, he has the war chest and organization to sustain a national campaign. And despite the base’s apparently conflicted feelings about his family’s dynasty, Bush is the best ideological fit for his party. He hasn’t transgressed any of its core concerns, never flip-flopped on the social issue or deviated from its devotion to the free-market faith. 

Bush has bought himself more time, at precisely the moment that he’s corrected his candidacy. Watching him in New Hampshire, it’s possible to see a candidate who has stopped overthinking things, who has learned to be something resembling himself.

This is supposedly the year of authenticity—every fourth year, as it turns out, the voters have a unique craving for authentic politicians. By the measure of this strange fixation, Bush may be the most authentic of the pack—patrician, goofy, a little flummoxed.

Seeing Bush press his case on the trail in New Hampshire, I was stunned by how he seemed high-energy, forceful, and confident. For the first few months of the campaign, Jeb seemed to be reliving his father’s political weaknesses. He lacked a common touch. Just as his father was a prudent Yankee pretending to be an ideological Texan, Jeb ran from his background. Or rather, he could never quite figure out how to navigate the burden of his family’s name and his brother’s presidency.

Bush has now embraced the fact that he’s a scion. Although he’s kept his brother on the ranch, he brought his mother to the stump. In town hall meetings, he has begun to comfortably celebrate his brood. “The Bush thing, people need to get over it,” he told a crowd in Bedford, in an extended riff about his love for his family. Even the phrasing of that willful claim of indifference echoed one of his father’s idiosyncratic rhetorical tropes (“the vision thing”). Like his dad and grandfather, his presentation oozes with a New England prep school sense of noblesse oblige, talk of “servitude” and “purpose.”

At the beginning of the campaign, Bush was pretzeled by questions about foreign policy. He couldn’t decide if the Iraq War was the right call. James Baker was an advisor, and then he wasn’t. But as his campaign hit bottom, he jettisoned all his reticence and has gone full hawk. He claims that it’s unfair to lump him in as a member of the “warmongering crowd,” while calling for war with ISIS. It’s true that he doesn’t talk about carpet bombing. “We don’t need to carpet-bomb anymore. We have very good precision weapons,” he likes to say. But on pretty much every issue, he’s tracked the McCain–Graham line on foreign policy, so much so that Sen. Lindsey Graham endorsed him and reprised his old role as campaign sidekick. 

Strangely, it’s Trump who has helped Bush find himself. When Trump started belittling him, Jeb reverted to Bush form. He couldn’t understand how anyone could question his noble pursuit of public service. In the face of Trump’s attacks, he looked hurt and stunned. But Bush has embraced Trump-bashing as a moral calling. He gets quite braggadocious when describing how he, and he alone, has the backbone to stand up to the bully. And his attacks on Trump do have a certain swagger now. “I’m not a psychiatrist or a psychologist, but the guy needs therapy,” he blared on Saturday.

Thanks to Trump, Bush has a sense of mission. It’s given him a psychic basis for believing in the moral purpose of his campaign, beyond a quixotic attempt to reclaim a family heirloom or to prove himself to his father. Judging from the chatter among reporters at the back of Jeb’s events, the media wants nothing more than to proclaim his return from the dead. Against the odds, and despite his many months as a punch line, Bush has earned the right to rise.

Read more Slate coverage of the GOP primary.