The 2016 presidential election season has been filled with surprises, many of them unpleasant. Countless pundits and commentators have declared their shock at real estate mogul Donald Trump’s sudden rise to the Republican nomination, even in the midst of what used to be the most crowded partisan primary in recent memory. However, even as one can hardly escape coverage of Trump’s candidacy, the endless and impassioned attempts to interpret the so-called “Trump phenomenon” can actually distract us from recognizing what was probably an equally surprising development of the 2016 race: the severe (and, in one case, politically fatal) difficulties experienced by Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. In fact, as Donald Trump continues to bring the Republican rank-and-file even closer within his orbit, the failure of the latter might prove to be instructive for understanding the potential threat to the former.
It would appear that the sheer amount of written material discussing Jeb Bush’s role within the “Bush legacy” was exceeded only by the amount of commentary produced as his campaign began to slip, then falter, then fall, then utterly collapse. In hindsight, it can be difficult to tell whether Gov. Bush’s difficulties in his short-lived bid for the Republican nomination were primarily the results of Donald Trump’s incessant, belittling, uncouth attacks on the son and brother of two American presidents, or whether the Bush campaign would have experienced similar problems even if Donald Trump had never even entered the race. However, when Gov. Bush announced his candidacy for the presidency, the problems that his campaign would experience may have been perceivable at the time, but the incredible depth of those problems probably weren’t anticipated by too many people.
Only when Jeb Bush finally ended his campaign after a disappointing showing in South Carolina did the sheer distance of his precipitous fall become apparent. On February 22, Sam Sanders of NPR wrote a withering post-mortem assessment of the Bush campaign, arguing that “it was the end of a run that had seemed doomed for months: countless gaffes, merciless attacks from the likes of Donald Trump, seemingly limitless spending from a super PAC he couldn’t control with horrible returns from those investments,” also writing that Gov. Bush “seemed uncomfortable on the trail at best, and at worst, frustrated and unhappy.”
Two days earlier, Eli Stokols of Politico Magazine provided a succinct summary of the Bush campaign’s failure, writing that “Bush was on the wrong side of the most galvanizing issues for Republican primary voters; he himself was a rusty and maladroit campaigner and his campaign was riven by internal disagreements and a crippling fear that left it paralyzed and unable to react to Trump.” However, perhaps Stokols’ interpretation of Jeb Bush’s failure to even make a dent in the Republican primary delegate count gives Donald Trump too much credit; Steve Benen of MSNBC wrote a lengthier obituary for Jeb Bush’s campaign, but it perhaps more accurately captures the sentiments of the current Republican electorate (even without Trump): “Bush’s problem was more fundamental. He was the wrong candidate with the wrong message at the wrong time. He had strengths – a conservative record, a family pedigree, a willingness to talk about public policy in a half-way serious way – which just happened to be the exact opposite of what Republican primary voters were looking for in 2016.”
Unfortunately, we can be tempted to review the short-lived Bush campaign and assume that it seemed as doomed for failure at the time as many of these writers make it seem in hindsight. The reality is not so simple. In the spring of 2015, both as it became clear that Mitt Romney would not challenge Jeb Bush for the nomination and before Donald Trump entered the race, a third Bush at the top of a Republican ticket didn’t seem like an impossibility. Additionally, when looking back, Trump’s entry into the race doesn’t seem to me to be as crucial to Jeb Bush’s campaign’s collapse as it apparently seems to others. I would argue that even if Donald Trump hadn’t “exposed” the weaknesses in the Bush candidacy, some other rival would have. In light of this assumption, I think that Jeb Bush’s serious difficulties in the 2016 campaign season are even more surprising.
Now, there isn’t enough time to even come close to an adequate discussion of the surprise that Hillary Clinton has encountered in the success of Sen. Bernie Sanders. However, one could simply read the ongoing coverage of the Clinton campaign’s troubles throughout the 2016 election season and perceive themes that at least slightly resemble the Bush campaign’s difficulties. As early as September of 2015, before even a single primary or caucus vote had been cast, Kenneth Walsh wrote an article titled “Warning Signs” in U.S. News & World Report in which he observed that “[Clinton’s] larger problem is that she hasn’t generated enough emotional commitment from her supporters and hasn’t erased doubts among voters who don’t already support her.”
More recent commentary on the Clinton campaign hasn’t been much less damning; less than two weeks ago, Philip Rucker of The Washington Post reported that “at Clinton’s New York campaign headquarters, her advisers are grappling with how to convince swing voters that a former secretary of state, senator and first lady who owns a home in Washington, has cultivated deep ties to Wall Street and has played a starring role in the political scene for a quarter-century would usher in change.”
In conclusion, it seems to me that the events of the 2016 presidential election season have thus far pointed to two possible interpretations, even though both seem to be two sides of the same coin. One is centered entirely around the success of the Trump candidacy, around the retrograde sentiments about race, class, gender, and nationality that his campaign has both inspired and exposed. This interpretation simply overestimates Donald Trump’s political savvy. The second possible interpretation is primarily concerned with the inability of Jeb Bush to even come close to winning the Republican nomination, and the inability of Hillary Clinton to secure a resounding victory in the Democratic primary. I believe that this interpretation more adequately addresses the frustration of far more Americans than just Trump’s original cohort. In other words, the election of 2016 says just as much about Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush as it does about Donald Trump.