A lot of work goes into maintaining the happy, hopeful bubble around Jeb Bush.
For starters, he doesn’t read newspapers in his car, and he avoids their websites on his iPhone. As needed, aides will email him news clips, but only after they have been sanitized of the horse race–who’s up, who’s down–he despises. Bad news comes heavily vetted if it comes at all.
When Bush is on the campaign trail, out among the public, it’s harder to filter the information. But he has developed coping mechanisms. When reporters ask about polls, he calls a proverbial 15-yard penalty and loss of down, then refuses to answer. Staffers on the morning briefing call know better than to speak of the latest surveys. During an interview with TIME in early October, he promised not to read this story or any of the other “life-or-death … crapola” about him in the press.
There is a single, defining reason for all this precaution. From the moment Bush began talking last year about a run for the White House, he promised to proceed only if he could “do it joyfully.” That effervescent feeling, prized more by poets than by pols, was always at the center of Bush’s presidential plan–to run with “brazos abiertos,” he says, “open arms”–bringing victory to a floundering national party amid a message of cultural harmony, reduced taxes, massive economic growth and rainbows.
But joy has been hard to find. He has been mocked by Donald Trump as “low-energy” and hounded for minor gaffes that get blown out of proportion, all while continuing to underperform in the polls. The only candidate with more than $100 million in a war chest and a name that opens any Republican door, Bush sits in fifth place in the national surveys, behind a trio of political novices and his old protégé Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
So Bush has chosen to control what he can, which means tuning out most of what goes on around him. “It just doesn’t have the same purpose for me if I was focused on, if I was obsessive about the politics for politics,” he says. “That would take joy from my heart in a heartbeat.”
Happiness is not really the theme of the 2016 GOP race so far–farce and fratricide seem closer to the mark. And the joy that matters most to Jeb does not come especially easy to him. By disposition and instinct, he has far more of his father’s reticent manners than his brother’s cowboy swagger. He calls himself an “introvert” and a “grinder,” two words devoid of glee, and brags of never, ever having taken more than a week’s vacation at a time. There is an aptitude instead for the long haul. Born to privilege, he embraces the humiliations of hard work.
And you can see it on the trail. He has one of the most ambitious campaign schedules of any candidate in the race, beginning with predawn trips to the gym and often ending two states away with late-night donor calls in a hotel room. Sixteen-hour days are the norm, facing small–and sometimes hostile–crowds, who induce regular flubs. He suggested that Americans need to work longer hours, when he clearly meant that Americans need more opportunities. He snapped at a reporter who questioned his use of the term anchor babies. After the latest college shooting in Oregon, he let slip, “Stuff happens,” though he meant that the world is full of obstacles that do not demand government solutions, not that they should be dismissed as unimportant. There are also the awkward verbal tics, like adding “man” and “brother” at the end of a sentence.
Democratic strategist David Axelrod calls campaigns MRIs for the soul, and Bush says he is content to be who he really is, even as his campaign rejiggers its message to cast him as a Washington outsider ready to knock heads. “Extroverts migrate to the public arena, but introverts win in the end, brother,” he explains in a conversation with TIME on Oct. 8. “Being focused, being really striving for improvement, being self-aware, not being driven by your own ego but being driven by a mission, I think in the end is a good set of personality traits.” Then he adds, with the slightest hint of mirth, “It is what it is.”
No one expected a cakewalk when Bush jumped into the race last year. Since Barry Goldwater took the nomination in 1964, Republicans have favored insider princes, handing the nomination to the person who had either nearly won last time or seemed next in line. That was the system Bush imagined when he declared in the fall that he would have to prepare to “lose the primary to win the general.” It was the kind of line the GOP establishment loves.
But the GOP establishment turned out to be weaker than anyone expected. Then came Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, a trio of political amateurs promising to channel furies the back rooms could not detect. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, GOP leaders were overthrown for being willing to compromise with Democrats to keep the government functioning, the sort of sensibility that has defined Bush-family politics for generations. Losing the primary–and all that follows–is now very much a real possibility.
At the core of the Bush challenge is the brand name and all it signifies. “I do think the bar’s higher for me, but that’s good,” he said in an interview in his black campaign Escalade on his way to the airport after his three-day Iowa swing. “I don’t see it as a burden. I see it as an opportunity.”
But the rise of the insurgent right has forced Bush to depend even more on his name. Fundraising for the latest Bush campaign has always been a family business, but never like this. Former President George W. Bush has participated in at least four fundraisers, including one very quietly just outside the nation’s capital a few weeks ago. His parents, in their 90s, have each participated in two, and his brother Marvin Bush and sister Dorothy Bush Koch in one each. Later this month the two former Presidents Bush will join the hopeful at a summit for high-dollar donors in Houston dubbed the “Jeb Celebration.” Then there is his rising-star eldest son George P. Bush, the Texas land commissioner, who has crisscrossed the country fundraising and attending campaign events while younger son Jeb Jr. has focused on youth outreach.
This summer, Jeb reports, Barbara Bush strolled the beaches of Kennebunkport, Maine, with her dogs and a pair of “Jeb! 2016” bumper stickers on her three-wheeled red walker, handing out others to passersby on one condition: “Don’t put it in a scrapbook–put it on the car.” “This is typical of my mom,” Jeb notes as the car ride continues, before quoting the family matriarch: “If you have two cars and you want to put them on, I’ll give you two.”
Ask about his struggling poll numbers (Jeb has fallen from double to single digits in most surveys since getting into the race) and Bush points to his father’s experience. “At this point, my dad was an asterisk in 1979,” he noted, plugging his time campaigning for his father in Iowa that year. Left unmentioned was the fact that a more conservative and charismatic candidate, Ronald Reagan, beat the elder Bush to the nomination in 1980.
On an early October afternoon, Dorene Oliver was sitting just in front of a bank of television cameras at the Pizza Ranch in Indianola, Iowa, when Bush was asked by a voter to name his biggest mistake as a leader. Muttering within earshot, Oliver, a 56-year-old Ben Carson supporter, quipped, “Not changing your last name.”
Jeb heard the jab and searched the room for the culprit. “Who said that? That’s not a mistake,” Bush responded matter-of-factly. “I’m proud of my family.”
But there is still time for a Bush rebound. He’s built the largest ground operation in New Hampshire and is looking to his formidable super PAC to help reintroduce him to voters over the airwaves. During the Iowa trip, his super PAC released a new ad, featuring Bush’s disruption message, part of a months-long $50 million campaign to define his record as a government reformer. “He has the record of shaking things up and actually accomplishing something, which is what a lot of the appeal of outsiders is,” said a Right to Rise adviser. The echoes of the slogan that made George W. Bush the nominee in 2000–“Reformer With Results”–are easy to hear.
The elder brother’s counsel may prove to be another advantage as the real primaries begin. “My brother gives me good advice,” Bush says of the former President, who he notes is the only Republican to win nationally since their father in 1988. “I need to ask him more, to be honest with you. Because he’s got a great, very astute sense.”
In Indianola, Jeb proceeds to talk up his Florida record, cutting the size of government, raising the state’s growth rate–the sort of things that matter most to Republican voters this year. The Carson supporter who came in mocking Bush’s name eventually came around. “I thought we were going to listen to another George W. Bush, but I was very, very wrong,” Oliver explained afterward. “I’ve changed my mind.”
Yet there is a grim counternarrative spreading in the Bush supporter and donor orbit: that maybe Jeb is the wrong candidate, with a temperament, last name and ideological disposition ill suited to the moment. Perhaps he missed his chance in 2012, they muse privately, or maybe, as Barbara Bush said in 2013 (but later recanted), “We’ve had enough Bushes.”
The Bush strategy is a wager that voters will set aside their anger and the appeal of the “grievance candidates” who’ve never held government office and look in the end for a more electable Establishment favorite. That is usually how it goes with Republicans. But the anger that has marked the race so far seems to be broadening if not deepening, and that’s lengthening the odds on Jeb. If it doesn’t subside and if he can’t rebrand himself to capture the frustrations by the time Republicans go to the polls in February, then even many of his staunchest backers concede it may be a lost cause.
In the meantime Jeb Bush gets up every morning to try again, preaching joy while grimly focused on the narrow task before him. “It’s been my responsibility from the very beginning to methodically go about telling my life story,” he says. “I don’t know what everybody else does in the campaign, but that’s what I do.” There’s little else he can control, he says. It is what it is.
This appears in the October 26, 2015 issue of TIME.
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