It is a cliché of American electioneering for candidates to advertise their humble beginnings and unstinting ascent in the face of adversity. Even George W. Bush, with his Andover and Skull-and-Bones East Coast Brahmin pedigree, offered up his own version of the log cabin myth, alluding to his drunken youth and subsequent soul-saving entry into the evangelical fold, and taking self-deprecating potshots at his tricky time as part-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. The message was that these episodes were tests of the candidate’s resolve, temporary setbacks in the higher drama of his journey to the Texas governor’s mansion. (It didn’t matter that Bush’s gubernatorial track record was decidedly dismal, since the log cabin myth is about how you attain great office, not what you actually do when you get there.)
But the emerging field of Republican candidates for the 2016 presidential election is something else altogether. Of the dozen or so people who have declared or are thought likely to declare, every one can be described as a full-blown adult failure. These are people who, in most cases, have been granted virtually every imaginable advantage on the road to success, and managed nevertheless to foul things up along the way. There is, for starters, George’s younger brother Jeb: not yet a formal candidate, but already on course to raise $1 billion in campaign funds. (He has deliberately delayed his official entry into the field in order to wring every dollar he can from big-money political action committees; once he becomes a runner, the rules forbid him from dealing directly with them.) Jeb has dined out for most of his career on his image as the clever Bush brother, but as his quasi-campaign heated up and the press started to ask questions about actual policies, he immediately undermined this unearned plaudit by saying he would have followed to the letter George’s catastrophic decision to invade and occupy Iraq. After realising that this was a position now seen as insane even by most Republicans, he tried to retreat from it with a series of flailing clarifications.
Jeb Bush’s own track record is terrible. He was elected as governor of Florida in 1998, touting his ambitious plan to ‘reform’ – i.e. privatise – the state’s underperforming schools. The actual returns of his ‘education miracle’ are equivocal at best: it’s hard to tell how individual schools are performing because the letter-grade system he instituted (from A to F) is recalibrated almost every year in an attempt to improve the figures. The unregulated charter schools are paid for with taxpayers’ money. Florida statutes require the organisations administering the schools to be non-profits, but, Florida being Florida, all that energetic for-profit concerns had to do was set up non-profit shell companies as nominal administrators. By 2002, according to the St Petersburg Times, three-quarters of all newly established charter schools were managed by for-profit companies. One such edubusiness, the Richard Milburn Academy, has been forced to close seven failing schools across the state since 2006, but is still allowed to operate two campuses in Daytona Beach with $2.8 million in tax subsidies. In all, 30 per cent of the state’s charter schools have gone under; meanwhile, the people in charge of them have often simply gone on to set up new schools under new corporate letterheads.
Bush’s other accomplishments in office include two curiously complementary policy fiascos: signing the nation’s first ever ‘stand your ground’ gun law (the legislation that gave us the Trayvon Martin killing and countless other instances of unpunished citizen bloodletting); and prolonging the life of the severely brain-damaged Terri Schiavo in a cynical bid to burnish his culture wars résumé. Also disgraceful was the disenfranchisement of Florida’s black electorate on his watch. Florida election officials, ostensibly looking to prevent felons from casting ballots, worked from lists riddled with errors and mistaken entries, with the result that more than 12,000 qualified black voters were purged from registration rolls during the 2000 election cycle. In addition, majority black and Hispanic districts were plagued with antiquated and malfunctioning polling machines – breeding grounds for the ‘hanging chads’ that made the Florida ballot in 2000 a global byword for gross electoral negligence.
Bush’s private-sector CV has been no more inspiring. He co-led a shady Florida company called Bush-El, which marketed water pumps in Nigeria. On one occasion, before his time as governor, a pilot reported seeing Bush and other company managers travelling on a plane to Nigeria with a briefcase full of cash, presumably earmarked for government bribes. Bush denied having been on the plane. After 2007, when he retired from office, he served on the board of a building materials company called InnoVida, which paid $15,000 a month to Bush’s consultancy firm. InnoVida declared bankruptcy in 2011 and was charged with defrauding investors. Its CEO, Claudio Osorio, had misappropriated investor cash to buy himself a Maserati and a mansion, and is now serving a 12-year sentence in federal prison. Bush has claimed he knew nothing of InnoVida’s wrongdoing. Bush was also on the board at Swisher Hygiene, a soap-making concern. When the senior brass confessed they had been doctoring financial documents and practising dodgy accounting, the company’s stock valuation plunged by three-quarters. Once more Bush denied any knowledge of what was going on (this claim won’t now be tested in court, since the firm settled a class action brought by its investors without having to acknowledge any wrongdoing).
But all this was as nothing compared to the most glorious moment in Jeb’s board-padding career. In 2007, he was appointed a consultant at Lehman Brothers. Like all major financial players, Lehman was by then up to its eyeballs in mortgage-backed securities. Two months later, the Florida State Board of Administration’s $1.4 billion in toxic mortgage-backed securities, predominantly sold to it by Lehman, started to tank. By the following year, Lehman’s enormous holdings in subprime loans were all but wiped out, and Bush was enlisted to see if he could engineer a fire sale of some of the bank’s empire of debt to the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. Nothing came of this last-ditch overture and Lehman went under in the fall of 2008, very nearly taking the financialised infrastructure of global capitalism with it. Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to suggest that Bush was responsible for any of this, but it’s never a good sign when your last shot at market redemption hinges on Jeb Bush’s ability to save the day. In the event, Bush managed to pocket several million in fees from Barclays after it took ownership of the Lehman portfolio’s expiring husk.
Bush’s long litany of failure merits close study both because, in spite of it all, he represents the sober, can-do face of executive GOP leadership, and because nearly every other candidate in the crowded Republican field recapitulates his slog into market mediocrity. Failure isn’t just an option for the vast company of Republican presidential hopefuls, it’s a well-trodden career path. Take Marco Rubio, a former protégé of Bush, who is often hailed as the great other-than-white hope for a party that fares badly among younger and Latino voters. On paper, Rubio presents as an American success story in the log-cabin mould: the son of struggling Cuban immigrants, he scaled the heights of the American meritocracy. He had a youthful dalliance with Mormonism à la Mitt Romney, played college football, and even married an ex-Miami Dolphins cheerleader – all before finding his voice as an angry prophet of Tea Party rebellion. But Rubio’s roster of actual achievements is notably thin – and sometimes disturbing. The Daily Mail recently revisited Rubio’s tenure as speaker of the Florida House of Representatives in 2007 and 2008, and found that despite declaring a net worth of just $8000 when he left the legislature, he had charged $160,000 to his party-issued AmEx card, covering every sort of exigency: trips to a neighbourhood wine store and movie theatre, a $134 haircut, a $765 visit to an Apple store and $4000 for a new floor in his home. More than $5000 for a Rubio family getaway to the luxury Melhana Plantation in Georgia was charged to the credit card of Rubio’s chief of staff, who evidently let himself get swept up in the spending spree. In a further muddying of the accounting waters, Rubio operated one of his two PACs out of his Miami residence. In violation of Florida law, he failed to disclose $34,000 in expenses that one of the committees racked up, including $7000 paid to himself. Several relatives were paid $14,000 in ‘courier expenses’, and Rubio put in for $51,000 in unitemised travel reimbursements. (His wife, Jeannette Dousdebes, was treasurer for one of the PACs, and claimed $5700 in food and travel expenses for a job that presumably involved zero actual commuting.)
In his 2012 autobiography, Rubio brushed off all this light-fingered expensing as the result of innocent inattention, and announced that he had arranged for all the improper charges to be repaid out of personal funds. But as Chris Ingram, a former Florida Republican political consultant, put it, ‘Marco Rubio has a well-established pattern of abusing other people’s money and lying about it.’ Not everybody is able to get away with this kind of financial misconduct. The former chair of the Florida Republicans, Jim Greer, made similarly free personal use of his party-issued credit card and served 15 months for money laundering. Greer claims that he faced judicial consequences for his spending trespasses only because he had backed Rubio’s opponent, Charlie Crist, in the 2010 Senate primary: ‘The leaders of the Republican Party of Florida chose to look the other way for the spending habits of certain individuals while at the same time accusing me.’
Meanwhile, a longtime friend and ally of Rubio, former Congressman David Rivera, is facing a series of ethics proceedings, the Washington Post reports, for ‘routinely billing the state for travel and other expenses while paying himself back out of campaign accounts when he was a state legislator’. In 2005, Rivera and Rubio bought a house together in Tallahassee; five years later foreclosure proceedings were started against them because of unmet mortgage payments – another embarrassing lurch into financial lassitude that Rubio now says he’s made good on. This lapse is not to be confused with the $135,000 equity loan that Rubio and his wife obtained – and failed to disclose on their joint tax return – when they claimed that the appraised value of their home in Miami had skyrocketed by $185,000 a mere seven weeks after they bought it in 2008. No matter: Rubio’s meteoric rise on the national political scene has been bankrolled by a billionaire Florida car-sales mogul called Norman Braman. How else is a humble immigrant kid going to make good in today’s America?
But we are no doubt dwelling for too long on the lurid conduct of politics-cum-graft in Florida. Once you let your gaze wander from the corrupt centres of Sunshine State power, mini-Jeb Bushes abound. The governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, an early GOP contender thanks largely to his appeal among hardline conservative voters in Iowa (whose caucuses are the first major event in the nomination process), is another textbook case in adult failure. He is famously mum, for instance, about the abrupt termination of his college career at Marquette University in the middle of his senior year. Various explanations have been floated, ranging from an unspecified illness in his family to his landing a full-time job at the Milwaukee Red Cross. Or maybe Walker simply couldn’t hack the academic workload.
It’s not as if Walker was simply mimicking the self-made gospel of success preached by America’s most revered school dropout, Benjamin Franklin; his longest period of private-sector employment was a high-school job at McDonald’s. Instead of perfecting his entrepreneurial pluck the fire-breathing young conservative (at Marquette he had displayed a photo of himself with Ronald Reagan in his dorm room) devoted himself entirely to Republican electoral politics. Here, too, he started out as a failure, running a doomed state legislative campaign in a mainly black, Democratic district of Milwaukee; he was trounced by 38 points. But then he hit on the foolproof formula that has helped him on his ascent ever since: sidle up to the 1 per cent, and run as their paid political retainer.
In 2011, amid an assault on the collective bargaining rights of state public employees, Walker responded with sycophantic alacrity to a prank call placed by Ian Murphy, a reporter for the Buffalo Beast, who convinced Walker that he was David Koch, the mega-billionaire funder of the Tea Party. The faux-Koch suggested an outlandish series of Nixonian stunts to attack the unions, including the planting of pro-Walker double agents at their rallies. Walker’s placid reply – ‘We thought about that’ – was followed by the purely instrumental calculation that an overly disruptive COINTELPRO initiative might backfire; if the protests got out of hand, he politely suggested, the public might start wanting the governor to reach an accommodation with the unions in order to put an end to the unrest. Thus Walker was able to impart a useful political lesson to a pretend billionaire while simultaneously showing how much he had learned about the fawning owed to the donor class.
Most of the Republican frontrunners are perhaps grudging converts to the gospel of failure, having at least made a show of trying and trying again. The Texas senator and Tea Party darling Ted Cruz, though, is an ardent evangelist for the sacred mission of screwing things up for ideology’s sake. His father, Rafael Cruz, who left Cuba as a young man to become an extremist endtimes preacher in Texas, raised Ted as a true believer in both the evangelical gospel and free-market fundamentalism. In the 1980s, the reverend enrolled his 13-year-old son in an after-school programme focused on the works of Milton Friedman and Ludwig von Mises. Almost alone in this year’s GOP presidential field, Cruz can claim a résumé that abounds in actual distinction: debating trophies at Princeton, a distinguished tenure as a Harvard Law student, clerking for the Supreme Court and then arguing cases before it as Texas’s solicitor general. The challenge he faces is that as a scourge of the liberal elite he must also diligently pander to every anti-intellectual, populist myth on the Tea Party right, in order to solidify his standing as an insurgent revivalist of the one true Reagan faith.
His way of resolving the contradiction has been, in Silicon Valley jargon, to go out and ‘break shit’. During his Princeton debating career, Cruz caused his team to lose a competition when an opponent from Yale (the future Obama economic adviser Austan Goolsbee, as it happens) went after Cruz’s favourite talking point, about how his father emigrated from Cuba with nothing more than $100 sewn into his underwear, noting that, heroic as the tale might be, it really didn’t shed much light on the subject under discussion, the growth of the federal deficit. ‘How dare you insult my father!’ was Cruz’s combative non sequitur of a reply. Every phase of Cruz’s launch into national renown has showcased this same barely repressed appetite for self-destruction. His first attention-grabbing act in office was to stage a pointless marathon filibuster against the funding of the Affordable Care Act, bringing Senate business to a day-long halt for no reason other than to show off his doctrinaire Tea Party purity over the course of a cable-news cycle. The media particularly liked the fact that his oratorical rampage included a solemn recitation of Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss – aka the rabid crypto-socialist Ted Geisel.
But this was merely practice for the main event: it was Cruz who orchestrated the self-defeating attempt to shut down the government entirely in 2013, again nominally to defund Obamacare – even though, as Cruz’s filibuster stunt made abundantly plain, the Democratic-majority Senate was never going to give in. Here was a man trained in every elite sanctum of the American meritocracy reduced to executing a Mad Max-style campaign of deliberate sabotage against the most basic operations of government. Cruz’s megalomania is so unhinged that he has alienated most of the Senate Republicans, meaning that he will never be able to get anything substantive done for his home-state constituents. The perverse thing is that this scarcely matters, since the more Cruz infuriates the DC establishment, the more he’s able to sell himself as a Tea Party saviour, giving all those know-it-alls and bagmen in Washington a bracing crash course in ideological zealotry and constitutional probity.
The further one descends, gingerly, into the sprawling 2016 GOP presidential field, the more clearly one sees it as a halfway house for a wide array of adult failures. Mike Huckabee is a failed TV pundit and a failed small-government ideologue. No sooner did he announce his candidacy than his fellow right-wing media eminences leapt to denounce him as everything from an ‘appalling’ legal thinker to a ‘lying crapweasel’. Huckabee seemed determined to appal them even more by going out of his way to laud Social Security and Medicare (social provisions that all right-thinking American conservatives are obliged to regard as blunt, satanic instruments of liberty-torturing tyranny). Huckabee’s main rival for the conservative evangelical vote, Rick Santorum, proved stubbornly incapable of maintaining a principal residence in his home state of Pennsylvania during most of his Senate tenure. Santorum even qualifies as a failed evangelical, since he’s a lifelong Catholic. (To see someone engage in failed casuistry, just ask him about the man he’s now obliged to regard as God’s mouthpiece on earth – the gay-tolerant, climate-change affirming, rich-baiting Pope Francis.)
Rick Perry, former governor of Texas, recently announced his entry into the 2016 primary race. During his ill-starred 2012 campaign, Perry suffered an excruciating nationally televised brain freeze during a Michigan primary debate, when he was unable to remember one of the three federal agencies he had pledged to abolish. As governor, he increased the already scandalously high rolls of uninsured Texans by a million thanks to his unyielding refusal to expand Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act. He also, like most GOP governors, royally botched his school reform initiative. His myopic tax cuts blew a $5.6 billion hole in the state’s school budget in 2011 that has left districts strapped for basic supplies; a recent Education Week report ranked the state 49th in per-pupil spending and 39th in academic performance.
Carly Fiorina is the field’s sole battle-tested emissary from the sacred world of business, and the most noteworthy entry on her résumé was getting dropped as CEO of Hewlett-Packard thanks to the dismal returns on her most aggressive market play: a merger with the computer giant Compaq. The episode did nothing to quench Fiorina’s seemingly inexhaustible thirst for humiliating failure: after a turn as an adviser with the 2008 McCain-Palin ticket, she challenged the vulnerable junior senator from California, Barbara Boxer, in the Republican-leaning 2010 election cycle, but was beaten by ten points after frittering away more than $6.5 million of her own money on the race.
Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, seemed to emerge from the damage of Hurricane Sandy in 2011 as that most elusive of Republican political leaders: a man who could rise to a crisis and actually get things done (unlike, say, Christie’s fellow unannounced 2016 hopeful, the Louisiana governor, Bobby Jindal, who basically handled the previous year’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill by letting the culprit, BP, sprint gleefully away from the consequences of its criminal negligence). Yet the mirage of Christie’s competence proved to be as evanescent as that of Jeb Bush’s intellectual seriousness. ‘Bridgegate’ – the petty and idiotic conspiracy to close off a lane of the George Washington Bridge to punish one of Christie’s political enemies – proved to be just the tip of a gargantuan iceberg of Jersey malfeasance on Christie’s watch. In no particular order, the governor has called off a crucial rail-tunnel expansion in the New York metro area, evidently in favour of continuing to hand out billions to political cronies; he sullied his Sandy résumé by directing hundreds of millions in flood-relief funds to reward political allies and punish would-be rivals; and in perhaps the least forgivable trespass against Garden State sensibilities, he has shamelessly buddied up to Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, hated divisional rival of the Jersey-based New York Giants. Abject, operatically self-defeating cronyism, in short, is the Christie philosophy of governance – and it’s eloquent testimony to the lack of plausibly competent GOP candidates that a 2016 Christie presidential run hasn’t already been ruled out simply on the merits of the case against his petty and vindictive term in office.
Lindsey Graham, who’s racked up failure after failure in the Senate in his supposed area of expertise, the conduct of American foreign policy, is positioning himself as the party’s authority on foreign policy. In the demented GOP-orchestrated propaganda push for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Graham distinguished himself by asserting that Saddam Hussein was ‘flat-out lying’ about the non-existence of his actually non-existent arsenal of WMDs. Since then, Graham has not been chastened in any way by the many American failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, he has specialised in the kind of baseless scaremongering that’s more suited to the voiceovers of movie trailers than the formulation of effective diplomacy; ‘The world is literally falling apart’ is a favourite Graham talk-show refrain. And the Graham-branded solution to spreading global chaos is always for the US to mount a new military intervention, basically anywhere it can think of: Iran, Syria, Libya and (what the hell) Isis, even though it doesn’t administer an actual state whose territory can be invaded.
Graham’s opposite number in the Republican world of diplomatic gamesmanship is the libertarian Rand Paul, another second-generation political scion in the Bush mould, who launched his ophthalmology practice in Kentucky by founding his own certifying board in order to evade the jackbooted thugs of the American Board of Ophthalmologists. His National Board of Ophthalmology (which despite its name operated only in Kentucky) was dissolved in 2011 after its dubious bona fides were exposed, but as recently as 2013 he continued to advertise his practice as ‘board-certified’.
The only Republican presidential hopeful boasting any real personal distinction is Ben Carson, by all accounts a masterful neurosurgeon, who unlike Paul was able to establish a long-term practice affiliated with one of the most prestigious institutions in his field, the Johns Hopkins Medical School. The only problem, from the point of view of the Republican leadership, is that Carson’s demented Obama-vilifying hot takes – Obamacare was ‘the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery’ – are too extreme to gain a serious following even among the apocalyptic rank-and-file of today’s GOP.
So, sadly, that leaves the informed GOP voter seeking out meritocratic valour in the rugby scrum of aspirants to the most powerful job in the world pondering the prowess of George Pataki, the all but forgotten ex-governor of New York, who’s not so much a proven success as just really, really tall. When you’re essentially reduced to gauging executive competence on the basis of shoe size, there’s probably nothing to be done but to rear back and embrace a months-long race to the bottom. The best short-term hope for today’s Republican party is that Donald Trump will at last tender an official announcement that he’s running for president. He can make anyone in his general vicinity look good.