The most interesting things about Jeb Bush and his candidacy are who he is not – and this election cycle, we’ve learned a whole lot about it.
He’s not a guy who “can fix it” or this summer wouldn’t have seen Republican chaos and the rise of Donald Trump. He’s not a guy who can pull off having a trademarked exclamation point at the end of his name (is anyone?). He’s not the tough guy in any situation, and he’s certainly not the candidate “tough enough” to stand up to Donald Trump. He’s not even the guy who could, in the indelible words of The Donald, “schlong” Hillary ; on the contrary, she appears more likely to schlong him.
We know he’s not these things because he’s tried desperately to be each one of them.
It’s strange Bush is trying so hard to build a personality from scratch, since by most accounts he had a pretty good one going into the primary race. His reputation was that of a serious, thoughtful candidate whose words were not just said but felt deeply. A guy who’s honest and earnest, trustworthy and hardworking. A respectable conservative. The son and brother of the last two Republican presidents.
But so far Bush seems capable of defining himself only in opposition to his family and to other people’s attributes. “I’m not my father or my brother,” Bush has often said . “I’m my own man.” It sounds like something a rebellious teenager would say, more along the lines of “I’m the boss of me,” than real self-actualization.
Still, his campaign keeps trying, now posting such things as Bush’s ramblings about encountering Sharknado or him wriggling to get into a zip-on hoodie, all under the hashtag #JebNoFilter; the clips are more likely to leave you laughing at him than with him. His humor, when it succeeds, is less bro-slapstick and more droll or maybe ironic, something Bush himself has acknowledged doesn’t play well on the campaign trail.
It’s easy to see the appeal of trying to change that with the #NoFilter campaign. The trouble is, on Bush, it all just reads like the awkward pandering that it is. You can almost see him Googling the term and winding up on Urban Dictionary, perplexed, or calculating the youthful appeal of Mark Zuckerberg’s sweatshirt uniform. Whatever advisers encourage him to try, it seems, he’ll try – with the exception , for some reason, of losing those glasses.
Hillary Clinton has a dynasty problem too, but you won’t hear her trying to reassure audiences that “she’s her own woman”, or that – no really, she’s the one who’ll be running the country if she’s president. Though she does often say she’s not running for a third Obama term nor a third Bill Clinton term, her campaign also often reminds people of her independent political ambitions dating back as far as her senior year at Wellesley – real history rather than a newly invented persona. And though she panders to millennials, she tends to let them do the work for her, conscripting people like Lena Dunham, Katy Perry and the Cast of Broad City to be her ambassadors.
Bush may not have those options. Young people just aren’t excited about him. And though for a time it was somber, dutiful Jeb who was seen as the brother most likely to inherit the family mantle, that hasn’t been the case since at least 1994, when Jeb was running for governor of Florida. That was the year his older brother announced an unexpected bid for the governorship of Texas , and Jeb was open about how much his brother’s jumping into the race irritated him at the time, arguing it turned their dual candidacies into a “cute People magazine story”.
Now he’s struggling to define himself apart from a crowded presidential field even as he struggles with his old ghosts.
On a campaign trail bus recently in New Hampshire, Jeb asked a group of kids at a charter school whether any of them had a brother. When a few murmured yes, he asked if they were the same as their brother. The self-evident answer was no and the parallel to Bush’s situation was clear.
What’s less self-evident, however, is why Jeb is still thinking about this in kid’s terms – why he feels his candidacy needs silliness and misleading elementary comparisons rather than to not be the person that kept reading The Pet Goat as the Twin Towers fell. He’s spent so much time and energy defining himself away from his brother and his father and everyone else that he’s lost track of who he is, or who he was, or who he wants to be.
If his next campaign invention is actually authentic, the slogan will be “Jeb!: Not W! Not Donald Trump!” And if he’s really being honest, “Not President!”