Has being a Republican politician become one of those jobs like dishwashing and lawn mowing that Americans don’t want any longer?
Jeb Bush said as much this weekend when he threatened to take his ball and go home. The former Florida governor lost it at a town hall in South Carolina on Saturday: “I’ve got a lot of really cool things I could do other than sit around, being miserable, listening to people demonize me and me feeling compelled to demonize them,” he said. “That is a joke. Elect Trump if you want that.”
The Democrats should thank him for the camera-ready ad copy.
Then there was Sen. Marco Rubio telling supporters he “hates” the Senate – an excuse for not showing up at his day job that is worse than not showing up. And what about Rep. Paul Ryan’s demand that his fellow House Republicans promise not to pick on him if he becomes speaker?
That’s a lot of bad ’tude coming out of the GOP as the next round of presidential debates looms Wednesday. Does no one know how to play game because the game is so bad, or is everyone spoiled by how it used to be?
Sure, this isn’t your dad’s party – witness The New York Times article describing how former President George H.W. Bush is handling Jeb’s travails (not well). In fact, given the tumult, it isn’t much of a party at all. Still, it’s a privilege to be a senator, speaker of the House or a serious candidate for president. Republicans have to quit longing for the days of yesteryear and show that it isn’t only the radicals who are willing to fight for what they believe in, however misguided that may be.
Most of all Bush can’t be seen letting Donald Trump get to him. The real-estate mogul has begun spreading the pain to include the uber-low energy Ben Carson, claiming to be mystified by the front-runner’s Seventh-day Adventist faith. But Bush is still target No. 1 because he is a more likely lasting opponent. It’s when Trump stops talking about him that he should really worry.
Trump’s latest line of attack on the dynasty has been to lay the catastrophe in the Middle East at the feet of former President George W. Bush. Apparently, nothing rattles Jeb more than having to come to W.’s defense. It drives him to heights of sputtering and incoherence that are spectacular even by the standards of his famously syntactically challenged brother.
At a rally in Florida on Saturday, Trump expanded his attacks to the elder Bushes, mocking Jeb for “meeting with Mommy and Daddy” to seek help. “They’re working on his campaign,” Trump said. Bush “wants to run our country, and he can’t even run his own campaign.”
Big donors had come to George H.W. Bush’s home turf in Texas to be reassured that Jeb’s lagging poll numbers were temporary and that his campaign’s decision to cut staff and payroll was sensible belt-tightening, not panic. Asked by reporters about the Houston event and whether his campaign was falling apart before his South Carolina appearance, Bush couldn’t put words to his frustration. “Blah, blah, blah. That’s my answer.”
That was right before he shared with the crowd of 500 (Trump had 7,000 at a recent event in the state) that his time might be better spent doing something else – probably not the most effective strategy when he is trailing Trump by as much as 34 points in South Carolina.
With three months to go before the first Iowan enters a church basement to caucus, it’s way too early for any candidate to wallow in self-pity, even one who has recently found that the party establishment he was counting on is no longer a rampart against rogue outsiders.
Cheer up. Even if running for president is really, really hard, it sure beats digging ditches, mopping floors or processing insurance claims. You have millions of other people’s dollars to allow you to fly around to raise yet other millions to spend on making yourself the leader of the free world.
You have aides to tell you what to say and handle incoming fire. The days last well into the night, but most of the people who show up really, really like you. The campaign is long enough you have time to fix your mistakes.
As Clinton circa 2008 could tell Bush, inevitability is not your friend, juggernauts are over, shock and awe doesn’t happen in war or presidential races. Do not whine. Do not show surprise that the crown isn’t being passed to you because of your last name. Accept, quietly inside you, what you cannot change: Outsiders are way cool right now but probably not forever.
Every debate – the one this week is in Boulder, Colorado – is another chance to make a first impression. Breathe deeply, marijuana is legal there. You might get back some of your joy.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.