After George W. Bush's tenure in office came to a conclusion, Republicans who were hoping Jeb Bush could succeed him in 2008 and 2012 asked me about his chances. "He'd do better, right? He's the smarter of the two, right?" Sadly, as Jeb's 2016 campaign struggles, it has confirmed the responses I gave several years ago. He's not the wiser brother.
Didn't Jeb get better grades in school? If only grades mattered. It reminded me of what Henry Kissinger allegedly once said of Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's National Security Adviser: "He is smart but not wise."
Most of us became aware of Jeb's shortcomings when he ran for Florida governor. It was the biggest GOP year ever. Yet Jeb Bush managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, dropping a close one to incumbent Governor Lawton Chiles.
Jeb tried to show off his so-called political smarts in a debate, rattling off an answer on trade policy in Spanish, and then condescendingly offered to translate it into English. Chiles quickly quipped, "I'm going to reply to that in 'Cracker.'" He added, "Do you understand 'Cracker'?"
Bush lost the election. Some say it's because Florida is a more moderate state, but in that election, other Republicans fared well in the Sunshine State, including freshman Senator Connie Mack III, who blew out Hillary Clinton's brother, Hugh Rodham. Others claim that Jeb Bush didn't have a Karl Rove. But I doubt even Rove could help the overconfident and often indecisive Jeb Bush.
Meanwhile, George W. Bush seemed more comfortable in political settings, keeping things short and simple. Sure, he made all kinds of errors in decisions, but he stayed confident, which gave you the sense that you knew what he was doing. Jeb, on the other hand, waffled so quickly and frequently that you became convinced he didn't know what to do or say.
Take the immigration debate, for example. Before 2013, Jeb was always a supporter of immigration reform, to the point of criticizing Mitt Romney for not adopting his moderate tone. Then he published a book adopting Romney's self-deportation plan. When critics decried Jeb's flip-flop, he amazingly changed course again. He's also criticizing opponents for changing their views on immigration policy.
It's the same with the Iraq War and single-motherhood issues. Jeb was the only GOP presidential candidate who defended George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, and then, once he was criticized by everyone else, he changed his tune to claim that the war was a mistake. When someone unearthed a book Jeb had written in 1995 calling for shaming single mothers, he defended his comments. Then, after the predictable outcry, he changed his story and said he no longer supports those views and has evolved his thinking on the subject. I have no idea what his policy on either subject is.
It was a similar roller-coaster ride for eight years when Jeb Bush was in office. He won two races, but his opponents were a bland lieutenant governor and a political neophyte. Neither win was a blowout. After he left office in January 2007, he went to work as a consultant for Lehman Brothers. Ouch.
Jeb Bush went from a lead in the 2016 Republican primary to being mired near the middle. And that's a wise decision that the GOP primary voters are making in backing away from the so-called "smart" Bush. There's time for Jeb to recover, but he'll need the wisdom of Solomon to do so.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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