“I think the reward for sticking with the Republican debates until the 11 o’clock hour was hearing Jeb Bush suggest Margaret Thatcher should be on our American currency.”—Samantha Bee quoted in “Party Lines,” New York Magazine, Oct. 5-18, 2016
Serendipity led me to come across the above quote just after the announcement that the previously scheduled campaign for last night was being canceled because of the withdrawal of Donald Trump and John Kasich. The conjunction of the discovery and the cancellation led my mind to roam, then think: Was it really August 6 of last year when the round of Republican primary debates began?
There were 17 candidates back then—not far off the total number of debates for the entire season—and numerous enough that they could have hired a small bus. There was so much squabbling for attention that Fox News, the network hosting that night, felt compelled to separate them into two tiers.
Nobody can say that Republican voters lacked choices. But in the end, look what they ended up with: As of this late, desperate hour, a front-runner with no attachment to principle but a decided propensity to alienate some group or person virtually any time he runs his mouth off. I never thought, prior to this year’s lineup, that I’d hear candidates talking about rivals’ energy levels, hand size, sweat glands, water retention, female physiognomy, child molesters, etc. Altogether, hardly an edifying spectacle.
But even when candidates have had a chance to talk about something more wholesome—something that, while not illuminating an issue or their reaction to potential crises, still can sum up their values—they’ve still managed to muff it. Case in point: A topic that came up in mid-September, the U.S. currency.
Asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper which woman they’d like to see on the $10 bill, the then-GOP Presidential hopefuls offered predictable but sound choices: Rosa Parks, Clara Barton, Susan B. Anthony, Abigail Adams. (Eleanor Roosevelt, a well-known Democratic First Lady, was conspicuous by her absence, but did you really expect otherwise?) Others flipped off what they undoubtedly saw as an absurd question with an equally absurd response (wives and mothers). One candidate, Trump, offered an unexpectedly serious choice (Parks) with an expectedly creepy one (daughter Ivanka, whom, you might recall, he once said that he might have dated had circumstances been different).
Kasich’s choice, Mother Teresa, was certainly offered with an eye on Catholic voters, some of whom might object that he had embraced another faith in midlife. But aside from that (the more cynical might say, because of that), his choice was all the more brilliant, as it:
* took the question seriously without, thankfully, mentioning a female relative that only he could relate to;
* satisfied the one longstanding legal requirement—that the honoree on the currency has to be deceased;
* represented out-of-the-box but not downright nutty thinking;
* rested on morally non-objectionable grounds (come on: besides the late contrarian Christopher Hitchens, who’s going to argue with a saint?); and
* reminded audiences of his own professed commitment to maintain the social safety net (he told one mega-donor furious over his decision to expand Medicaid to more than a quarter-million Ohioans, “I don’t know about you, lady, but when I get to the pearly gates, I’m going to have an answer for what I’ve done for the poor”).
In contrast, former Gov. Bush (excuse me, Jeb!) (pictured, in all his tortured glory) demonstrated so much combined shameless pandering, tone-deafness and all-around bone-headedness that it called into question the conventional wisdom that he was the smart one among the sons of George and Barbara Bush. His response? Margaret Thatcher.
Even those with today’s average attention span—the length of a tweet—would surely be reminded in debate post-mortems about the irony of citing “The Iron Lady” who felt compelled to q=warn Jeb’s father not to “go wobbly” on invading Iraq. But there are other reasons why it might not have gone over well with the rank and file who eventually doomed his campaign:
*A tough, partisan female who gave no quarter against males who stood in the way of her rise to the top: Didn’t that sound like—well, Hillary?
*Only the National Review of the early 1990s regarded Thatcher, together with Ronald Reagan, as part of “The Heroic Age of Conservatism.” You remember the National Review, right—the opinion magazine with a special “Against Trump” issue with contributions from nearly two dozen Establishment GOP figures? An issue that maybe influenced six people?
*Thatcher is a reminder of “The Special Relationship” that, at its height, featured the United States and Great Britain allying against the two worst dictatorial regimes of the 20th century. More recently, that alliance saw countless millions of dollars being sucked into a War on Terror with little sign of success or ending—a conflict that Trump got away with criticizing while incurring no lasting damage from GOP voters.
* “Margaret Thatcher” is not exactly a name to make most Irish-American conservatives stand up and cheer. They disagree with liberal and even Irish Catholics on a whole host of issues, including birth control, abortion, same-sex marriage, and the value of Mother Church. But they stand firmly with these others in regarding Thatcher not just as obstructing talks to end “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, but also as the very symbol of the arrogant, indifferent leadership that perpetuated Irish misery under centuries of British colonial misrule.
The news media spent so much time covering Jeb Bush’s hapless attempt to counter Trump’s charge about his “low energy” that it gave scant attention to an answer on U.S. currency that would have made half of Irish-American GOP voters throw up their hands and made the other half simply throw up. It was a short moment in Bush's campaign, but it conveyed much about why he went nowhere fast, carrying with him the hopes of a now-clueless political dynasty.