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Commentary: Bush Is The Latest Reluctant Warrior

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush speaks at a campaign event on Nov. 3 in Scott Brown's barn, in Rye, N.H. (Steven Senne/AP)
Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush speaks at a campaign event on Nov. 3 in Scott Brown's barn, in Rye, N.H. (Steven Senne/AP)
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At the end of his 2012 campaign for president, Mitt Romney’s son Tagg said, “He wanted to be president less than anyone I’ve met in my life. He had no desire to run,” he told The Boston Globe.

After losing the nomination to Sen. John McCain in 2008, Romney told his family he would not run again. He had to be persuaded to enter the 2012 race by his wife Ann and son Tagg. Romney was also unhappy because one of his most trusted advisers, Mike Murphy -- the architect of his successful 2002 run for governor -- would not join the campaign.

With the 24/7 nature of modern presidential politics, it’s virtually impossible for candidates to hide their unhappiness with running for the highest office in the land.

Another son of Massachusetts faced great reluctance: Michael Dukakis. In March 1987, flush from a resounding victory for re-election the previous year, Gov. Dukakis weighed his chances carefully. “The odds against winning are very long,” he observed, but the race is “very open.”

Dukakis was lobbied hard by his wife Kitty, his chief fundraiser Robert Farmer and many of his closest advisers in the governor’s office, including his chief of staff John Sasso. As a Dukakis consultant, I met with him and asked why he wanted to be president. His answer was revealing: “Because everybody whose judgment I trust says I should run.”

Dukakis foolishly fired Sasso, his strategic brain, but followed his road map and won the nomination. At the convention, he had a 17-point lead over Republican George H.W. Bush. He promptly took three weeks off the presidential campaign trail in August to preside over state business in western Massachusetts.

By Labor Day Dukakis’ lead had evaporated. Out of his element, he went through the motions, fought with his staff and Jesse Jackson, didn’t respond when attacked over prison furloughs, the pollution of Boston Harbor and the veto of a bill requiring schoolteachers to lead the Pledge of Allegiance. He had what one insider called “a tin ear for American mainstream culture.”

The day after his loss, he retreated to his beloved State House job, but was dismissed as a national embarrassment by many in the state who prided themselves on their political savvy. He announced he would not seek re-election to the job he cherished.

Today, we see another reluctant warrior, Jeb Bush, once-popular governor of the fourth-most populous state, with a family name that still opens Republican doors and wallets. He has raised the most money, has a super PAC that leads all others in dollars in the bank, and as recently as June was the clear leader in national polls. His super PAC is run by the same consultant, Murphy, that Romney had pined for when he ran.

To watch Bush on the campaign trail these days is to see a man whose heart is not in it. Donald Trump has correctly branded him “low energy.”  In a sure sign of trouble, Jeb’s campaign has begun to lay off staff. The Bush family recently held an intervention of sorts in Houston to buck up Jeb and major donors. A lobbyist who was there said, “The patient is either in intensive care and in need of some good doctors who can save him or being put into hospice and we’re going to see a slow death.”

Early on, Jeb was unable to answer a predictable question on his view of his brother George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq even when given the benefit of hindsight. In the CNBC debate, he was judged by voters the clear loser, having tried lamely to attack his protégé Sen. Marco Rubio for missing votes. He’s been told by his top fundraisers that his standing in polls had to improve or his money would dry up, but he has gone from being on top of the heap in national and N.H. polls in July to fifth place at just 7 percent in the latest WBUR poll of Granite State Republicans.

Dana Milbank of The Washington Post reported this strange diatribe from Jeb several days ago in South Carolina: “If this election is about how we’re going to fight to get nothing done, then I don’t want any part of it,” he said, “I’ve got a lot of really cool things that I could do other than sit around, being miserable, listening to people demonize me and me feeling compelled to demonize them. That is a joke. Elect Trump if you want that.”

At this point, Republican voters want that and Trump’s chances of winning the nomination are miles ahead of the man who has a lot of really cool things he’d rather do.

Dan Payne is a Democratic political analyst for WBUR and a regular contributor to WBUR Politicker.

Dan Payne Twitter Democratic Political Analyst
Dan Payne is a Democratic political analyst for WBUR.

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