What do Scott Walker and Jeb Bush have in common?
As of this posting, it’s not that they’re both failed 2016 candidates (Bush still clings to dear life!), nor that they were both similarly assured frontrunners whose campaigns ran dangerously short of cash after a few weak debate performances and unfortunate gaffes.
It’s not that they’re governors, or white men, or have written books. It’s not that their books are very similar. In fact, stylistically, their books are almost polar opposites—except for one thing:
In Walker’s Chapter 26, he offers a bullet-pointed plan for conservative victory in “the larger debate over the future of our country” (225). This includes such sub-headings as “Change the Polls, Not Your Principles”, “A Big Crisis is a Chance to Do Bit Things”, “You Can Reform Entitlements and Survive”, “The Benefits of Boldness”, “Win the Center with Leadership”, “Champion the Vulnerable,” and “Be Relevant” (225-240).
Bush’s Postscript is titled “A Prescription for Republicans”, and begins by saying that “Although this book is directed toward everyone, regardless of party affiliation or philosophical persuasion, we think it is important to conclude by directing these comments to the Republican Party itself” (200). Bush’s points are equally bullet-pointed, and include “Put the immigration issue behind us”, “Promote freedom of enterprise and educational choice”, “Get religion”, and “Reach out for real”. The aim of this is to nudge the Republican party into reaching out to Hispanic and other immigrant voters, who “fit the classic profile of Republicans” because they are “entrepreneurial, family-oriented, deeply religious, and place a tremendous emphasis on educational opportunities” (203).
Immigration Wars and Unintimidated are aimed not at American readers, but at donors, bundlers, and those influential with them among the Conservatives, the GOP and the RNC. The fact that this was the strategy both Bush and Walker picked and it seems to have failed them demonstrates, I think, the difference between these three segments of the American Right, and the relationships between them and the presidential race.
Peter Beinart, writing a premature autopsy of Jeb for the online version of The Atlantic, recently made the argument that Jeb Bush has been failing (and that this is a good thing) because his entire campaign strategy has been aimed at donors, not at people. From the beginning, Beinart argues, Bush focused on raising money rather than building connections with voters, sure that money would make a nominee. This is the same strategy, and aimed at the same influential and wealthy people, that brought his father and brother to power. But now, the conservative base is restive, as likely to jump for Trump as for the Tea Party. Other candidates seem to have realized how risky it is tying one’s fate to the formal machinery of the party, and have distanced themselves from it: the two frontrunners right now both make a big deal about how “it doesn’t matter whether you have a D or an R next to your name” (Carson) or how the main GOP candidates are all in the donors’ pockets (Trump). Even the less outsider-y candidates have recently banded together to discuss lessening the RNC’s control over the pre-primary process. This rebellion, popular though it may be, doesn’t co-exist smoothly with a cynical, flattering appeal to the kingmakers of the party, as Walker and Bush do in their conclusions.
Is there something inherently dishonest about this play to the superstructure rather than the base? Not necessarily. Other candidates like Ben Carson print books specifically to give to donors, so it’s not the explicit transactional use of a book that’s odd. But there is something that feels disappointing about getting to the end of a book and then realizing that you were never the one it was meant for. Writing a book specifically addressed to the RNC is an admission that it’s the RNC who holds the power instead of the voter, and that the fate of the GOP is more important to the candidate’s political future than the candidate’s vision for the country. It’s an unflattering withdrawal of the mystification of political power in American civic life.
More than anything, this exposes the necessary contradictions of running as a GOP candidate: it’s impossible to win without money, and money comes from an entrenched and institutionalized class of political operatives and donors; and yet power in the polls comes from almost appearing to make enemies of exactly those institutionalized operatives. Candidates have to cheerfully down pork chops on sticks at state fairs and host $100,000-per-plate dinners and act as if the former is the more important.
So what do Scott Walker and Jeb Bush have in common? In the case of their books, at least, they were too honest.