What happened to the joy of Jeb?

Story highlights

  • Raul Reyes: Jeb Bush seems frustrated; he's polling low, his irritation with gloves-off campaign shows
  • Bush is gaffe-prone, expresses disdain for ugly reality of governing in gridlock, seems unprepared, says Reyes

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)What happened to that self-proclaimed "joyful tortoise"?

At a Saturday town hall event in South Carolina, Jeb Bush was sure sounding frustrated with the current state of the GOP race for the nomination. "If this election is about how we're going to fight to get nothing done, then ... I don't want any part of it," he said. "I don't want to be elected president to sit around and see gridlock just become so dominant that people literally are in decline in their lives. That is not my motivation."
He dismissed the suggestion that the recent financial cutbacks at his campaign were evidence that it was struggling. "Blah, blah, blah," Bush said. "That's my answer -- blah, blah, blah."
    Bush is wading into perilous territory with these latest remarks. No matter how down and dirty a political campaign gets, American voters respond best to optimism and determination. Unfortunately, the exclamation point in Bush's official slogan -- "Jeb!" -- is starting to seem like one reflecting annoyance, rather than excitement.
    "I've got a lot of really cool things I could do other than sit around, being miserable, listening to people demonize me and me feeling compelled to demonize them," Bush said in South Carolina. "That is a joke. Elect Trump if you want that." But the former Florida governor should be careful what he asks for. Like it or not, politics is a buyer's market, and so far conservatives have not shown much demand for his electoral brand.
    If Bush doesn't care for the long slog of winning the nomination, then perhaps he should drop out and pursue those other "really cool things" he says he could be doing. His irritation at polling in single digits comes close to sounding like misplaced entitlement from the scion of a political dynasty.
    No one who runs for president wants to see gridlock -- although it certainly may occur. By expressing disdain for what is often political reality, Bush presents himself as ill-suited for the gritty challenges of Washington. He also inadvertently opens himself to charges of elitism. As one commenter noted on social media, "sounds like someone is about to take their set of silver spoons and head home."
    Bush may be upset that he has not emerged as the GOP front-runner despite his name recognition, money, and experience. Well, welcome to the big leagues. Bush's failure to inspire voters is not Donald Trump's fault, nor is it Ben Carson's or the public's fault. It is Bush's own fault, and the sooner he accepts this reality, the better off he will be.
    Consider that almost from the start, Bush has seemed personally unprepared to execute a successful campaign. He stumbled over basic questions, like whether he would have invaded Iraq as his brother did.
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    He explained his strategy for economic recovery by saying, "people need to work longer hours." He's made gaffes on everything from the need for funding for women's health issues to the Oregon mass shooting ("Stuff happens"). No wonder pundits have been writing columns about his "foot-in-mouth problem"; Bush has earned them.
    Worse, Bush has caused confusion for voters who could've been supporters. Latinos noticed when he was slow to denounce Donald Trump's anti-Mexican remarks. Many Latinos (and Asians) were flabbergasted when he used the derogatory term "anchor babies" to refer to the children of immigrants.
    And strangely for someone who is very proud of his bicultural family -- he is married to a Mexican woman and says he speaks Spanish at home -- Bush stated that "multiculturalism" is wrong for the U.S. This all sends a muddled message to Hispanic voters, which is a shame, given that Bush is a moderate on immigration (he favors legal status for the undocumented).
    Running for president is not easy. No one said it would be, and right now Bush is failing the test that he set for himself: that he would run only if he could do so "joyfully."
    To turn his campaign around, Bush needs to stop taking his connection with voters for granted. He must define reasons for his candidacy, other than his last name. Most of all, he must be mindful of seeming like a whiner when the going gets tough. Ironically, if he needs inspiration, he need only look at Hillary Clinton, who endured a marathon session before the House Benghazi committee and emerged with glowing reviews.
    Jeb, instead of getting mad at Trump or voters, get it together. No more expecting the nomination. It's time you earned it.