It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Conservatism and the Republican Party were supposed to have become inclusive, humane, cosmopolitan, and pragmatic. That is what the Republican establishment and uber-consultant Mike Murphy told us.
Two of the hottest prospects for this new, better conservatism came out of Florida. There was the handsome, golden-tongued Tea Party senator. There was the reformist former governor, reputed to be the smartest and most conservative member of the most successful American political dynasty of the last hundred years. Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush both lost. Bush’s political career (aside from occasional snarking at Trump) is largely over. Rubio is still young and retains his Senate seat. But who showed more character in losing?
Let us start with the wonderboy of the last election cycle. Rubio was branded as a hyperarticulate Reaganite who had stood up to the party bosses’ attempt to impose the opportunistic Charlie Crist as the GOP’s Senate candidate. He was young and Hispanic, in a party whose leaders had decided that winning the young and nonwhites was the key to future elections. (Why a candidate’s youth should have any particular appeal for young voters was never explained—though there were some stories about how Rubio enjoyed gangsta rap. Among the 2016-cycle presidential candidates, it was Bernie Sanders—the oldest of them all—who did best with young voters.)
Then it all fell apart. In his 2010 campaign, Rubio had run against upfront amnesty. But after Romney’s defeat in 2012, Rubio chose to become the Republican face of Washington, D.C.–style comprehensive reform, which included upfront legalization. The Tea Party rebel had flip-flopped on the issue that most bitterly divided the party’s elites from its grassroots. Worse, Rubio’s comprehensive immigration reform included an enormously unpopular increase in future immigration.
Rubio didn’t just betray himself on policy. During the campaign, Rubio went from talking about the glories of American exceptionalism to mocking the size of Donald Trump’s genitals, back to standing up for dignity. Rubio’s campaign collapsed, largely because he had failed two tests of character. The GOP’s donors and consultants goaded Rubio into betraying his voters; Trump’s insults goaded Rubio into betraying his sense of decorum.
That brings us to Jeb Bush. It is difficult to remember now, but Bush should have been a strong contender. He had been a popular two-term governor of a swing state (arguably the swing state). He was reputed to be more policy-oriented, and more principled, than his older brother or his father. But Jeb Bush didn’t just fail. He saw himself mocked in social media as Fredo, after the cowardly, dim-witted Corleone brother.
This judgment was unfair, but the people making it had their reasons. In one debate, Bush demanded an apology from Trump and then backed off when Trump refused. His more socially aware brother would have known to avoid that tactic or else have a back-up plan. George W. Bush knew that it was important to plan and rehearse for social confrontations whenever possible. It turns out that, when it came to politics, George W. was the smarter brother.
Jeb’s embarrassments didn’t end there. When Bush attacked Rubio for missing Senate votes (an attack that Bush clearly didn’t believe), the more verbally agile Florida senator brutally slapped Bush down as the pawn of his incompetent campaign managers. The insult had the ring of truth.
But it wasn’t the whole truth. For all his flaws, Jeb Bush showed more character than most of his GOP opponents. Some of his principles were unpopular in his party, but he stuck to them. Bush never tried to present himself as an immigration restrictionist. Bush never lowered himself to speculating about Trump’s crotch. Bush had the courage of his anti-Trump convictions.
When his campaign ended, Bush endorsed Ted Cruz as the candidate best positioned to block a Trump nomination. Cruz was extremely unpopular with Republican politicians, and there is no reason to think that Bush had any love for Cruz. But Bush had declared that Trump was dangerous. From Bush’s perspective, endorsing Cruz entailed putting country above personal feelings.
Rubio, by comparison, had taken far more harshly personal shots at Trump and argued that Trump was unfit to be commander-in-chief. Yet he refused to endorse another candidate after dropping out. An endorsement of Cruz might have been used against him in a future Rubio-Cruz contest. This was entirely in keeping with the cynical careerism of Rubio’s entire campaign. Jeb Bush lost badly, but he lost as his own man, and he lost pursuing the public interest as he understood it. Not every 2016-cycle Republican contender can say that.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.