South Carolina has always been a firewall for the Bush family. This year, it looks more like a fire extinguisher.
It was hard to avoid that conclusion after attending both Donald Trump and Jeb Bush campaign events here in this beautiful city in the South Carolina Lowcountry.
On Monday evening, a driver, her window rolled down to enjoy the lovely weather, directed this question my way: “Where is all this traffic coming from?”
Simple. Donald Trump was scheduled to speak at the local high school.
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Trump’s event drew such a crowd that fire and police officials turned people away not just from the performance center where he spoke, but from the 700-plus-capacity auditorium that served as an overflow room.
You couldn’t help contrast the numbers Trump attracted with the 200 or so who came out in mid-morning on Wednesday to see Jeb Bush.
Bush was earnest, smart, explanatory and expansive. Too much so for two Bush admirers I spoke with, who left midway through.
“I’m bored,” one confided.
Leaving later, other long-time Bush supporters said, sadly, that things just weren’t coming together for him.
Before the event, retired schoolteacher Paula Butner told me she had deep respect for the Bush family, and particularly George W., but was leaning toward Trump.
“I like how decisive he has been about immigration,” she said. Given her affection for the Bush family, was she put off by the way Trump has gone after Bush for the Iraq invasion, saying his administration lied about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction?
No. “I think it is just part of the games they play,” Butner said of Trump’s accusation.
The sense that the Palmetto tide had turned against Jeb was accentuated on Wednesday afternoon, when news broke that Gov. Nikki Haley’s highly coveted endorsement would go to Marco Rubio, who is jostling with Bush and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio for the role of establishment alternative.
As for Trump himself, his event broke new ground in the annals of self-admiration. Fielding softball questions from former South Carolina GOP chairman Van D. Hipp Jr., the candidate shifted voices, the better to boast about his own prescience and prowess.
“Trump was talking about Osama bin Laden a year or two before the World Trade Center came down,” he declared.
Of course, Trump’s candidacy is all based on the notion that Trump is possessed of unexampled talents, intelligence and abilities. Indeed, as Trump presents it, all problems can be solved by a president with his intellect, toughness and deal-making prowess.
His pitch comes down to this: Trust me, I can.
Or rather: Trust Trump, he can.
And, talking to his backers, that seems to be enough for them.
“I am sick of politicians. He was a super businessman,” said Susan McDowell, a South Carolina retiree. “You’re doggone right I’m going to vote for him.”
Back to Bush. He actually does have an array of reasonably well-thought-out conservative plans and proposals detailing what he proposes to do on any number of issues, from college costs to health care for military veterans to the national debt. After he spoke, he spent considerable time answering questions from the audience.
Watching him, I found himself thinking, yet again, that Bush is a smart, thoughtful, decent guy — but one who is hopelessly stuck in another time.
A time when a potential president had to demonstrate a real understanding of the issues, to offer some realistic plans, to tell people what he would do if elected.
That all seems hopelessly antique in this year’s Republican primary process.
Bush had hoped that a strong South Carolina finish could frame this race as Jeb versus Donald, the serious, experienced, conservative governor against the erratic, unpredictable, unpresidential outsider.
Instead, the message seems more likely to be that the state that has shined on his family is now declaring that the Bush era is over — and the Trump odyssey has dawned.