At the beginning of the presidential campaign, many pols and pundits in the know exuded a confident posture in the face of a large field of Republican candidates. They had a candidate with a resume that was tough to beat. Some said the man was modern history’s best prepared presidential candidate. His experience was relevant and varied, he came from a successful political family, and he appealed to a wide spectrum of primary and general election voters. He was a resume’ candidate. But as the race began, this candidate found his constituency usurped by someone with a gift of gab and a power to stir the apathetic into a political movement that he would captain. He was a personality candidate. Almost before the primary season was underway, the personality candidate seized the news cycle and kept it. The resume’ candidate lost early and often, and was incredulously out of the race soon thereafter.
These were the events of the first few months of 1980. The same story might now be written of the current campaign, and written without changing the surname of one of the candidates.
Prior to the 1980 New Hampsire primary, the flagging campaign of Ronald Reagan helped stage a candidates’ forum, from which Reagan and all candidates not named George H.W. Bush were later disinvited. Reagan showed up anyway, having assisted in funding the forum, and was greeted with knowing grins from the moderator and from Bush and his team. Bush was an insider’s favorite, a former congressman, CIA Director, Ambassador to China, and RNC Chairman. His father had been a well-respected moderate senator from Connecticut. His international business and political connections meant that the line of establishment support for his candidacy stretched around the globe. He was seated at the speakers table, seemingly lying in wait. Perhaps he knew what the moderators had in store. Reagan entered the event, pale and stark looking, all dark suit and slick hair on a New England winter evening. When he took the microphone to speak, the moderators asked him to stop. Bush did nothing. When Regan began speaking, the moderators asked that the candidate’s microphone be turned off. Bush did nothing. Other disinvited candidates gathered behind Reagan. Something changed in the room. Now, loudly and with fury, Reagan grabbed the mic, turned to the moderators and said “I am paying for this microphone!” The crowd cheered. Bush sank in his chair, but otherwise did… nothing. The race was effectively over shortly thereafter.
Reagan, the old movie actor, had stolen the scene, and with it any passion that voters had for Bush, and done it so quickly that the rest of the Bush campaign was spent wondering how it all happened.
Fast forward to 2016, and the parallels astound. Prior to the election season, Jeb Bush was the darling of the establishment and favorite to win the GOP nomination. Nice resume’. Donald Trump was best known as a wealthy businessman and reality TV star. Famous personality. Trump announced his candidacy the day after Jeb Bush did and immediately seized the news cycle with provocative comments. Jeb dismissed him entirely. Couple that with Trump’s immediate and unanswered onslaught of rhetoric meant to diminish Bush’s standing, popularity, and even manhood (he called him “low energy” and “weak” from the get go) and you can merge the images of Jeb and his father, George H.W., stooped shoulders and palms to heaven, without being able to tell the difference between them. Both Bushes made late attempts to argue policy, (Jeb was caught on video pleading with an audience to applaud his wonkish campaign speech), but were soon drowned out by popular chanting – remember: “U.S.A. – U.S.A.!” from the “Miracle on Ice” U.S. Olympic hockey team, a chant that was also heard at Regan rallies and is now a set piece at Trump events. Adding to the dissonance was popular sloganeering – Reagan: “America is Reagan Country”, and “America is a Shining City”. Trump: “Let’s make America Great Again”.
In the end, both Bushes found it impossible to heard on policy issues, and to defeat the soon accepted notions about the superiority of their opponents’ personalities – that these men, both outsiders to the establishment, were genuine American originals, destined to head movements away from established norms, away from established candidates. Get on board, folks, we’re the newest, biggest thing in politics.
It didn’t matter that both personality candidates lacked the tried and true pedigrees of GOP nominees and were themselves constructs of political opportunity. The Bushes lost the races in 1980 and 2016 before most of the country knew how the victors would govern. Jeb and his father were victims of their own passivity, conservative deportment, and of the changing times, though the Bushes, well liked as they both are and still stinging over being rebuked by their own in favor of outsiders, might call it separate instances of personality crime.