Let's face it, Jeb Bush was finished in the presidential race long before his official withdrawal Saturday after his loss in South Carolina. It was over well before he tweeted a photograph of a handgun with his name engraved on it under the caption, "America," one week ago (his Michael Dukakis in a tank moment) — or perhaps even before he unveiled his campaign logo: Jeb!
He was the wrong guy in the wrong year, and that's kind of a shame. Not because the notion of a third member of the Bush political dynasty in the White House was ever a comforting thought for most Americans but because his temperament, experience, intellect and compassion for the less fortunate (a characteristic that seems in particularly low supply in the GOP field this year) are qualities well-suited to leading the free world.
In the year of the angry outsider, Jeb Bush wasn't either and couldn't fake it. His moments of anger — most memorably directed toward front runner Donald Trump during the various debates — came off more like flustered annoyance while outsider status was never remotely possible given his last name and his obvious support from the Republican establishment.
By any measure, Mr. Bush was crushed. He couldn't crack the top three in any state. His huge war chest produced just four delegates compared to Mr. Trump's 67 to date. His campaign quickly became the stuff of late night parody: Comedian Darrell Hammond in the role of The Donald mocking the low-energy, deer-in-the-headlights Florida governor as "Jebra" somehow rang outrageous and authentic at the same time.
Yet even when his poll numbers slipped into single digits last year, it still seemed likely that the Jeb Bush campaign would eventually find its bearings, that Trump supporters might stop forgiving their candidate his moments of ridiculousness or perhaps that moderate GOP voters would abandon the tea party candidates generally and gravitate toward the governors, Mr. Bush and Ohio's John Kasich, the latter having seen a modest uptick but still running distantly behind. Governor Bush, whose wife Columba is a Mexican native, wasn't willing to speak of Latino immigrants in the disparaging manner of Donald Trump, and it cost him.
Mr. Bush was never a gifted politician on the stump; his appeal was about being a steady, prepared, even-tempered guy leading the nation at a dangerous time. And boy, did Republican voters show a lack of interest in any of that. Even if he had projected star quality and could channel Ronald Reagan at his Great Communicator and Morning in America best, it's hard to believe he could ever have caught fire. Such is the level of anger and distrust directed at the GOP oligarchic establishment right now.
Maybe the best thing that can be said of the Bush campaign is that it demonstrated that money isn't everything in American politics. When a campaign spends $100 million or more, directly and indirectly, and winds up with only a handful of delegates it's actually a bit comforting — or it would be if the Republican front runner weren't a creature of reality television and a lifetime of publicity-seeking, not to mention a billionaire. Mr. Trump likes to boast that he spends relatively little on his campaign, but perhaps that's because his campaign is built on years and years of TV facetime — a huge investment that doesn't show up on campaign finance forms.
And what does it say about the electorate? What happened to the days when Republicans fretted about an inexperienced leader making foreign policy decisions or guiding the economy? How did the party of John McCain and Mitt Romney get to the point where primary voters take their cue from Sarah Palin? What happened to compassionate conservatism? It seems that in stoking anger at President Barack Obama and the Democrats, the GOP leadership and its allies in the right-wing media merely fanned the flames of an internecine conflict.
Mr. Bush's withdrawal may strengthen others in the race, but frankly, he doesn't leave behind that many supporters to spread around. Instead, it likely raises the prospect that Mr. Trump will eventually win his party's nomination but do so with only a plurality of the vote while Hillary Clinton may yet emerge on the Democratic side with a clearer mandate — and thus a decided edge on the national stage. To date, most polls show Ms. Clinton besting Mr. Trump in a theoretical matchup (by as much as 10 points in the last NBC/Wall Street Journal poll). It's too early to wager on such a scenario, but in an unpredictable election year, a Trump-Clinton general election now appears to be the most likely final outcome.