THE BLOG

Given a Chance to Provide Moral Leadership in South Carolina, Jeb! Drops the Ball

06/23/2015 09:27 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016
Joe Raedle via Getty Images

Jeb Bush is back.

Three weeks ago, the long-time presumptive front-runner for the Republican Party nomination for president had reached a new low. Based on a Quinnipiac University national poll published on May 28th, the Republican primary contest was a dead heat, with five candidates -- Jeb Bush, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and Johns Hopkins pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson -- each polling at 10 percent.

Bush's decline from top dog corresponded with his difficulty responding to questions about the Iraq War and global warming, leaving him looking tentative, surly and unprepared. The man who was determined to run a positive and joyful campaign, and not to pander to the Republican base, was succeeding in doing neither.

Then last week he formally declared his candidacy and somehow he got his mojo back. His presentation was crisp. There was a new bounce in his step. All of a sudden -- as confirmed by a subsequent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll--he was looking once again like a presumptive nominee.

This is who Jeb Bush was supposed to be. His father's son more than his brother's brother. More Jim Baker, less Dick Cheney. A serious and thoughtful candidate who would stand out as an adult among children. As Bush went on offense, he convincingly painted his erstwhile protege -- and the other frontrunner in the WSJ/NBC poll -- Marco Rubio as a one term Senator with no executive experience. Scott Walker -- the tentative candidate of the Koch Brothers wing of the party -- similarly looked over-matched. And if Bush is truly back, it should mark the end of the budding candidacy of Ohio Governor John Kasich and put a final nail in the casket of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

All of a sudden, it was beginning to look like the Republican battle would boil down to what it was long predicted to be: a race between Jeb Bush and a conservative candidate to be determined -- with Texas Senator Ted Cruz emerging from a conservative confab last week as the new leading contender. A Bush candidacy would change the presumed dynamics of the 2016 race, as Bush -- a convert to Catholicism, fluent in Spanish, husband to a naturalized Mexican wife and father to three Latino children -- has the potential to garner significant support among Hispanic voters.

Then, just a day after Bush threw his hat in the ring, Donald Trump followed suit and lost no time making trouble. A self-appointed ringleader of the birther movement, Trump immediately upended Jeb Bush's fluent outreach to Latino voters when he brought pandering to the anti-immigrant base of the Republican Party to new heights, proclaiming in his campaign announcement speech that Mexican immigrants are "bringing drugs, they're bringing crime. They're rapists and some, I assume, are good people." Trump may or may not ever become a serious factor in the Republican race, but his offensive language was a reminder that for the past half-century, racially charged rhetoric has been an essential part of the national GOP playbook.

Dylann Roof's alleged cold-blooded murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston two days later left GOP candidates outdoing each other in their embarrassing efforts to express outrage at Roof's racist attack while not insulting evangelical and conservative Republican primary voters whom they seem to presume have some degree of sympathy for Roof's white supremacist cause. Instead of castigating Trump for his disgraceful words two days earlier or demonstrating any semblance of moral leadership, the Republican presidential candidates fell all over themselves trying to avoid labeling Roof for what he was, bringing to mind the words of W.E.B Debois a century ago.

"We stand again to look America squarely in the face and call a spade a spade. We sing: This country of ours, despite all its better souls have done and dreamed, is yet a shameful land."

This has been a test for Jeb Bush. From the outset of his campaign, Bush suggested that if he decided to run for the presidency, he would run on his principles and beliefs and not pander to the Republican base. He would only run -- and could only demonstrate his capacity to lead the nation as a whole -- if he was prepared to lose the primaries. Yet in this critical moment, he failed to take a stand. Faced with the raw, visceral hatred of Roof's written words -- "You rape our women, and you're taking over the country. And you have to go" -- Bush bent over backward not to call it what it was: "I don't know. Looks like to me it was [racially motivated] but we'll find out all the information. It's clear it was an act of raw hatred, for sure. Nine people lost their lives, and they were African-American. You can judge what it is." In a carefully worded press release, Bush pointed to his own removal of the confederate flag from the state house in Tallahassee as an indication of his "position on how to address" the issue, but offered no view on what should be done in South Carolina. Instead, Bush suggested that he was "confident" that -- despite decades of evidence to the contrary -- leaders in South Carolina "will do the right thing."

We have been down this road before. Fifteen years ago, in a pivotal moment of the 2000 Republican primary race, George W. Bush used the same formulation that his brother has now adopted when W. defeated John McCain in the South Carolina primary en route to winning the presidency. After McCain angered local voters by suggesting that the confederate flag was "a symbol of racism and slavery," W. suggested instead that flying the confederate flag was a state issue, even as he suggested obliquely that it was something that local leaders were "working to address."

There can be no doubt that both Bush brothers -- raised as they were in a family of New England Republicans with a long history of commitment to civil rights -- agree with McCain and view the confederate flag as a symbol of racism and slavery. This had to be a moment that Jeb and his advisors anticipated. No one would have foreseen the murders, but the confederate flag continues to fly over the South Carolina capitol, and it will be a political issue as long as it does. It loomed to be for him, as it was for his brother, a moment when he would have to choose between standing up for principle or opting for political self-interest.

It has been barely a week since Jeb Bush announced his candidacy. Now the questions once again revolve around what he actually stands for. A month ago, his campaign foundered on the question of his relationship with his brother, his brother's policies, and his brother's politics. This week he had one good day, but since then it has been downhill. This was a moment of simple moral clarity. If he was prepared -- as he claimed -- to take on the worst elements of his party, this was the moment to do it. Choosing not to do so may improve his viability in the Republican primaries -- as it did for his brother before him -- but it will surely cost him in the general election. And he knew that. He knew he was at a fork in the road, and he knew what the right path was. He just chose not to take it.