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Politics

What Changed While Jeb Was Gone

A man from another media moment.

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A presidential campaign is, more or less, a media company. It produces text and images, video and audio. It spends most of your money buying time on television. It tries to reach people and to touch them, to go viral and to forge deep connections.

Now imagine a media executive who retired in 2006. He was the editor-in-chief of a regional newspaper — the Tampa Bay Times, say — or the station manager of an important affiliate. He came from a great media family — his father was editor-in-chief of the New York Times, or president of NBC — and he'd been expected to reach those heights, but maybe the blood ran a little thin, or more likely the stars didn't quite align.

Here's what's pretty hard to imagine: a media company in this era of extreme change reaching back a decade and pulling him out of retirement.

That sort of comeback is done occasionally in a relatively stable industry — railroads, or consumer-packaged goods — where a heroic CEO of the old school may be brought out of retirement to right the ship. Neither of those celebrated examples involve someone out of the game as long as Jeb Bush had been, and neither concerns an industry as wildly destabilized as the media business has been. Dean Baquet has stopped worrying about A1; worrying about that page was central to Howell Raines' job. The hottest network today is Netflix. In 2006, Netflix was only mailing DVDs.

I wrote last year that Jeb Bush would be a terrible candidate, a case that was mostly about his policy views. His attachment to elite Republican causes like immigration and national education standards are certainly part of why he hasn't caught on. There's just not that much for Republican voters to get excited about.

But, if anything, I underestimated the degree to which his instincts and his affect, his strengths and his weaknesses, make him a man from a different political moment. Bush last ran a political campaign in 2002, a sepia-toned political time before bloggers got Dan Rather fired. Back then, the internet was a colorful sideshow, and a slow, elite-dominated media environment favored the sort of politician who wowed big-name newspaper columnists and impressed the hosts of Sunday shows. This weekend, he implored those heroic narrators to write him a "comeback narrative," attributing to them powers they don't really have any more.

In 2015, Bush’s political strengths — a discursive, engaged speaking style and a famous name — are weaknesses in a roiling digital space dominated on the right by the quickest, loudest, most self-consciously outsider voices. And his weaknesses hurt more. Bush conceded last week that debates are "not my forte." (They’ve never been.) Debates, though, now carry outsize importance. They're the only time you have voters' attention in this noisy environment.

And the problem with that noisy environment is that it's not just about having campaign operatives of the Twitter age, or appearing in short candid-style videos for Facebook, or being an early adopter of tech — it's about understanding that politics is the noisy environment now.

This isn't about his age; some politicians make themselves care about technology, and Hillary Clinton's emails include her puzzling to figure out emojis and LinkedIn. Jeb, by contrast, likes to dismiss the digital space where his campaign was dismantled while he sneered and left it to the hired help. "Look, I don't follow Twitter, I don't worry about it," he said recently.

Contrast that to the incumbent president's resigned mastery of the new ecosystem.

"My poor press team, they're tweeting every two minutes because some new thing has happened," Obama told the author Marilynne Robinson, reflecting that the micro-cycles had created "a pessimism about this country because all those quiet, sturdy voices...they're not heard." (To be fair, Jeb’s team tweets a lot too, whether or not the boss is paying attention.)

Obama is quite a bit like Bush in his ironic detachment and personal distaste for the swarming new ecosystem. And although Bush has been largely defined by petulant asides, sad rants, and poorly chosen words, he could be seen in his better moments as one of those quiet, sturdy voices. They'd probably get along, and agree that it would be preferable to run for president in simpler times. But Obama has forced himself to reckon with political reality, not just attending to twitter but speaking in tweets when it serves his cause.

The contrast with Bush's most potent Republican rivals is also painfully obvious. Donald Trump is an actual media professional — his most successful business venture has been a television show — who has lived every minute of his career through the New York tabloids. Ted Cruz rolls over and checks his Twitter mentions every morning (God help him) and is explicitly obsessed with going viral. Marco Rubio is a pure product of the new era, poised and disciplined when he needs to be, and contemporary without being weird. If you want to show that you're from the present century, do talk about hip-hop and don't leer at Supergirl. (Rubio, incidentally, was the first major American politician ever to visit BuzzFeed's New York offices, a sure sign of his media savvy.)

I've sought in recent days not to seem like I'm gloating as I retweet people saying my 2014 Bush piece nailed it. I don't get to gloat like this much — my other recent predictions include Mitt Romney's being a stronger candidate than you thought and a second consecutive black president.

Still, I stepped far enough across the line that an old Republican reader and friend emailed to chide me.

"Enough with the victory laps," he wrote. "The folks that should be taking victory laps are the GOP… Rubio has the nomination within his grasp. It’s morning in America, man."

Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.

Contact Ben Smith at ben@buzzfeed.com.

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