In the 1962 film “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” a punch drunk boxer played by Anthony Quinn is at the end of his career but is forced by the people around him to keep fighting. As the indignities pile up, his final humiliation is dressing in an embarrassing costume for a staged wrestling match.
I can’t help but think of Jeb Bush as the defeated boxer and the South Carolina primary as that wrestling match.
Bush, the odds-on favorite when he started his campaign last year, finished fourth in New Hampshire last night. That followed a sixth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses. The polls currently have Bush trailing in fourth place in South Carolina.
In politics, it’s rare to come across a person as decent as Jeb Bush. His record as a conservative pro-growth and antitax governor of Florida is enviable. He has a strong history of job creation. He has offered the most substantive policy positions of any candidate.
Of course Bush’s choice to push on in the wake of stinging losses in the first two states is his right. The decision to exit the race is a highly personal one. Bush will argue that the Republican contest remains fluid, but the fact remains he was supposed to be the presumptive nominee and has not won anywhere.
The Bush forces have already embarked on a major course change: his super PAC is featuring President George W. Bush in a new ad. That they’re doing so now, after deliberately avoiding the association for so long, indicates Bush has run out of options. He’s resorting to low-percentage shots from the three-point line.
It’s not hard to see where things went wrong. While pitchforks were raised in opposition to business as usual in Washington and America’s broken immigration system, Bush publicly mused that he was willing “to lose the primary in order to win the general.”
As a rule, self-contradictory statements do not make for good strategy. What Bush meant by it, however, didn’t become clear until the first GOP debate hosted by Fox News last August, when Chris Wallace asked Bush if he stood by a 2014 statement that illegal immigrants break the law as “an act of love.”
“I do. I believe that the great majority of people coming here illegally have no other option. They want to provide for their family,” Bush said, adding “there should be a path to earned legal status” for immigrants in the country unlawfully.
Bush’s heart is in the right place. But at a time when every other Republican candidate was moving to the right on immigration, it was as tone-deaf a statement as you could make. It turns out “losing the primary to win the general” wasn’t a blueprint for victory; it was a suicide note.
Other mishaps followed. Bush bungled the question on whether he supported his brother’s decision to invade Iraq. He launched an ill-conceived attack on Marco Rubio’s missed votes. He embraced the establishment that voters said they despised.
But the problem with Bush’s campaign is like the Nile: It has many tributaries but only one source. The origin of Bush’s woes was a flawed strategy that assumed he could run to the left of his party on immigration.
Bush could still recover. As of the end of January, Bush’s super PAC had close to $60 million cash on hand. He has a great team of people working for him. More likely, though, is that Bush will end up like that fictional heavyweight played by Anthony Quinn, ignoring the jeers of the crowd as he suffers one more humbling loss of face.
Eric Fehrnstrom is a Republican political analyst and media strategist, and was a senior adviser to Governor Mitt Romney.