Rubio’s rise and the end of the Bush dynasty

·National Political Columnist
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Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush. (Photos: Getty Images)

The day after the Iowa caucuses, I watched as the Shakespearean drama underlying this year’s Republican race — a classic tale of friendship and betrayal — played out its final act on either edge of New Hampshire.

In Keene, close to the Vermont border, I joined the small group of reporters who came to hear Jeb Bush speak to a polite audience of workers at a grocery wholesaler. Bush was, as ever, reasoned and respectful, but he seemed a little frustrated as he compared his old Florida protégé to President Obama.

Marco Rubio is “gifted as a politician, an unbelievable orator,” Bush said. But “the presidency is a leadership position. It’s not a backbencher, where you argue endlessly over amendments.”

Later, I drove down to Exeter, on the seacoast, where Rubio had just arrived to a line of satellite trucks and a raucous crowd of maybe 800 people, packed so tightly into a steaming, centuries-old theater that I heard a volunteer raise questions about the sturdiness of the balcony.

Playful and sure-footed, Rubio seemed like a different guy from the halting candidate I’d watched in Iowa just a few weeks earlier, under attack from all sides. “It is not enough to be angry,” Rubio told the crowd. “You have a right to be angry. But anger is not a plan.”

At one point, he told the story of how he had courageously decided to take on Florida’s Republican establishment and its then governor, Charlie Crist, when he ran for Senate in 2010. He left out the part about how his mentor, Jeb, had helped make it possible from the shadows.

New Hampshire is a fiercely unpredictable place, and anything can happen Tuesday. But it sure looks like we’re witnessing the last week of the long Bush dynasty in Republican politics — vanquished, in part, by a onetime confidant who understood where American politics was going.

This is not the way it was supposed to go down. When I talked with Rubio back in March, a few weeks before his official announcement, most analysts believed that Bush’s entry into the race had made Rubio redundant. Bush was better known, better funded and better positioned to lock down Florida’s coveted money and delegates.

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The thinking among Republicans in Washington then was that the only thing keeping Bush from choosing his younger sidekick as a running mate was the fact that they hailed from the same state, which was just a damn shame.

Primary seasons, though, are when the tectonic undercurrents of our politics reveal themselves. And what’s become clear in the months since is that Bush fundamentally misread the seismic signs of the moment.

Having been out of elective office for eight years, Bush took too long to grasp that the anger fueling conservative revolt was as much about the Republican establishment — with which the Bush name had become synonymous — as it was about Obama.

He entered the race without even thinking through a response to questions about his brother’s foreign policy. Somehow he conceived of his own candidacy as tangential to the family legacy.

“I won the lottery, I totally get it, I’m totally blessed,” I heard Bush tell voters this week with evident exasperation, as if he hoped to acknowledge it and then move on. He should have realized months ago that there was no moving on — that as long as he carried the Bush name, he would have to either defend or disown the past.

Nor did Bush seem to realize that Donald Trump’s sudden surge had nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with a sense of futility. Thinking that Trump was really just playing the role to him that two Pats (Robertson and Buchanan) had played to his father, Jeb’s first instinct was to demonstrate that he was the truer conservative.

In what was probably the worst day of his campaign, Bush marched down to the border with Mexico, declared himself tough on illegal immigrants and defended his use of the term “anchor babies.” He came off as pandering, and his attacks on Trump’s lack of conviction did nothing to dampen the uprising.

And Bush spent far too much of his campaign prattling on about his decade-old record as governor, oblivious to the fact that good governance no longer generated any mojo in either party; he might as well have been talking about his high school transcripts. (Actually, I heard him do a little of that, too.)

All that establishment money Bush piled up so effortlessly — more than $100 million for a California-based super-PAC — turned out to be infinitely less effective than Trump’s boxes of cheap hats with an even cheaper slogan. Bush’s allies spent a reported $14 million in Iowa, more than any other candidate, to corral 2.8 percent of the vote.

You’d have to think now that Rubio, having been close to Jeb in recent years, intuited that his old patron would end up being a man out of time. Rubio, remember, ran as both a party leader (he was Florida’s House speaker) and a tea party idol during his improbable Senate campaign in 2010.

He learned then, better than his mentor, how to precariously balance the dueling impulses in the party — how to edify the rising anti-governing faction with seething rhetoric, while at the same time soothing the broader electorate with inspiring, aspirational themes.

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And as a younger, nonwhite politician who watched Obama closely, Rubio understood, as completely as Bush did not, that résumé mattered for little in the post-boomer, entertainment-obsessed political age. What resonated more was a powerful story about how you got here or where you would take the country — something that reaffirmed, either through the power of identity or imagery or both, the things we wanted to believe about ourselves.

Lately, as the two men have vied to unify New Hampshire’s fractured non-Trump vote, a Rubio-aligned super-PAC has been pounding away at Jeb as a relic of the Clinton-Bush age of empire. In a radio ad I heard on a rock station while driving around New Hampshire, the narrator says: “Jeb Bush keeps talking about the past — about his father, his mother, his brother. All good people and respected. But their time has passed.”

But if in fact the Bushes’ time has passed, then it may have less to do with Jeb specifically than with this very notion of dynastic governing families in national politics that defined a lot of the 20th century.

Sure, we’ll probably have the Clintons and the Palins to kick around for a while longer — families that entertain us with their scandals and foibles, the same reality-show drama that makes Trump endlessly fascinating to some plurality of voters and much too large a segment of reporters.

But this concept of inherited establishment that defined the Roosevelts and Tafts and Kennedys, the idea that a family brand can endure through political generations, is probably anachronistic now, born of a time when parties and their leadership inspired more loyalty. We reward personalities, not paternalism.

No one can tell you what’s about to happen in New Hampshire. But unless something profound shifts in the next several days, and New Hampshire finally learns to love the Bushes, a long chapter in American politics may well be coming to a close.

The last heir will see himself pushed aside, eclipsed by the acolyte who refused to yield.