Jeb Bush threw everything he had at South Carolina, including the entire contents of his family. He campaigned relentlessly. His well-heeled Super PAC spent almost $14 million. His mother joined him on the stump. He hauled his brother George W. out of mothballs to stomp around a stage and conjure up memories of days gone by. When Donald Trump attacked the former president at the debate in Charleston, Jeb sprang to the barricades.
By doing so, Jeb turned his own presidential campaign into a Republican referendum on his brother’s presidency. It was a puzzling strategy. The tea party and Donald Trump’s populism, whatever their merits, are reactions not just to the overreaches of the left, but the failures of the Republican Party to produce good policy results during the 2000s. The war in Iraq, No Child Left Behind, the insatiable domestic spending—these were as much the targets of conservative anger as Obamacare and the stimulus. Dubya’s presidency had already been put on trial and found lacking.
So of course Jeb was never going to win the nomination. That was blindingly obvious to everyone who was paying attention, with the exception of the Republican Party’s impenetrably deluded jet set, which still can’t seem to find anyone in the country club buffet line who thinks anything went wrong during the aughts. But maybe Jeb could at least log a second- or third-place finish in South Carolina, his natural habitat if anywhere he had one. Military veterans have a strong presence there. Former president Bush’s approval rating among local Republicans is 84 percent. Surely the Bush family’s imprimatur would be worth something in the Palmetto State.
It wasn’t. Not only did Jeb not win in spite of his brother’s efforts, he didn’t win in spite of Donald Trump making what appeared at the time to be a kamikaze pass at him, accusing Dubya of lying America into the Iraq war. It would have gotten Trump tossed out of the Republican Party a decade ago. But this isn’t your father’s GOP—or Jeb’s brother’s. Instead, Trump crushed the rest of the field as was predicted, and Jeb choked his way through a stilted speech in which he announced he was suspending his campaign. The anointed frontrunner, the $100 million man, the most promising of the Bush offspring, only convinced 8 percent of South Carolina Republicans to vote for him.
It’s now clear that the ghost of George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism—given afterlife in various ethereal forms over the past seven years—has been exorcised from the Republican Party. Even Marco Rubio, a candidate of once-in-a-generation appeal and talent, the best hope of keeping the neoconservative fever dream going, barely eked out a distant second place after spending more in South Carolina than Trump, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, and Ben Carson combined. The GOP has at last repudiated its foreign policy past. And yet what it seems to have in mind for the future is just as terrifying.