In the grey morning hours before tonight’s Republican debate, it is becoming more and more apparent that it is an awful time to be an establishment Republican. The brass ring is right there, complete dominance of Washington just 15 months away, so close it’s like a perfect full moon rising over the Rockies on a crystal clear night—reach out your hand, and you can touch it.
Back in April, Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, one of most respected non-partisan analysts, had, in his First Tier, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio. Those three stayed there through the summer, even when Trump entered the race (he was the “un-nominateable frontrunner”) until September, when Walker’s candidacy collapsed in a matter of a few weeks.
And, now, where are we? Trump, despite every prediction to the contrary, is still there, although he now trails Ben Carson in the most recent national polls. The two are still sucking up half the support. Both seem to have remarkable Teflon attached to them—they can say nearly anything, and their supporters seem to love them even more passionately. Walker’s early exit might have been predicted—despite his early wowing conservatives in Iowa, the national stage exposed him as an unprepared, unpleasant empty suit cravenly beholden to his campaign contributors.
But Jeb and Marco—what is going on there is something very hard to get a grip on. Jeb might be a few weeks away from dropping out entirely. People have compared him to Mitt Romney, but the similarities are deceiving. Romney was also rich and connected (and a little disconnected from the issues ordinary people face) but Romney was a high-energy hard worker. Mitt knew his stuff—he had the same Governor’s experience as Jeb, but was far more of a policy wonk, far more sophisticated in his thinking. Trump has been particularly harsh in his criticism of Jeb—verging on bullying, but, that, too, seems to hurt Jeb more than it does Trump. Jeb looks passive, weak, unmotivated, and rusty. When he’s tried to push back, he seems to be flailing more than landing anything with impact. His polling numbers have dropped accordingly—he was in the low twenties in the spring, now he’s closer to 7-8%.
Last week, Jeb returned to the greater Bush clan for a group hug with family and long-time associates. He also announced a major shakeup in his campaign organization, staff cuts, salary reductions, and structural changes. But the problem isn’t with the deepness of the pockets of his contributors, or the depth of family connections, or even just a bloated campaign. It is with Jeb himself. He really does seem to be out of his element here.
Why that is must be a little confounding to his family and supporters. Of the seven present or former Governors who launched—Bush, Walker, Jindal, Christie, Huck, Kasich, and Perry (common decency keeps me from putting Pataki and Gilmore in the “launch” category) Jeb seemed to offer what he claimed to offer—a solid conservative (unlike Christie) popular in his home state (unlike Jindal), not alienating (unlike Walker) with gravitas (unlike Huck and Perry) and not an outsider (unlike Kasich). And, Bush had something else that was especially appealing to a party desperate to reclaim the White House—he was willing to lose a primary in order to win the general election. The one thing Reince Priebus, the rational media types like Rupert Murdoch (that’s Murdoch, not necessarily Fox) and the GOP donor base did not want is a lot of angry, divisive, obnoxious, and personally insulting rhetoric. Jeb was calm, he was solid, he was reliable—he was the physical embodiment of the bank president in a small town. What a Jeb Administration promised was a return to the Eisenhower Era.
If we were looking for the head of the local Rotary Club, maybe the GOP race would have winnowed down to what many people thought it would—there would be a process similar to Romney’s in 2012, where, one by one, the early promise of the fringier or single-issue candidates would fade, and the rest would be auditioning for Vice-President and a media gig. Alas, for Jeb, that was very 2012. If Obama’s first term made conservatives blood boil, his second one helped create an entirely new and paradoxical reality: Washington was completely dysfunctional, nothing could get done, Congress was worthless, power should be devolved to the states where conservative Governors and State Legislatures could do things the conservative way. There were two ways to fix this. Either hire an outsider egg-breaker like Trump, or, more to the Cruz/Freedom Caucus preference, a hard-right President who would simply impose, like Sam Brownback did in Kansas, a top-down, all encompassing conservative agenda.
Jeb is neither. He is certainly conservative, but he lacks the punch that underlies both preferences, and he can’t credibly run as anti-establishment. There are plenty of dissections of what Jeb has done wrong so far, and what he must do to redeem himself tonight. I think they are all accurate, but I just don’t see how Jeb breaks through the noise in Colorado. He is what he is. If I were Bush’s handlers, I think I would tell him to go back to first principles, stay within himself, and maintain his position. There are no knockout punches to be thrown in this field—especially from someone who is basically unsuited to slug it out. Clinch, live to fight another day and don't do anything stupid.
Which brings me to Marco Rubio, who may have done one of the most ill advised things since Rick Perry went “oops”. Marco hasn’t been showing up much for his day job—the “Senate” part of “Senator.” There is always a fundraiser, a speech, or a corn-dog festival that needs his attention. His attendance record is abysmal—even on substantive votes, and particularly in committee (he’s missed key briefings on the Foreign Affairs and Select Intelligence Committees). OK, everyone knows that’s what politicians do when they are running for higher office (many do it even when they aren’t running) so what’s the beef? We can’t expect a modern politician to be like Bob Dole, who resigned so he could focus on running for President.
The problem is two-fold. First, Rubio seems to be setting records for truancy. Second, Marco’s camp has made it clear he “hates” the Senate—he is unhappy with the process there—all those silly rules, all that delay, all that need for cloture (when legislation he supports is being blocked) and the requirement of 51 votes (and a Presidential signature) when it does get voted on. Marco is a man of action, and if his record of legislative accomplishments is particularly thin, it’s not his fault. In short, Marco really gets the unhappiness that people like Trump (and the Freedom Gang) are tapping into, and his response is….to boldly walk away.
Rubio is an attractive, smart, personable guy with a real gift for speaking. He’s shown himself as good debater, he has ticked up a bit in the polls recently, and a lot of handicappers think he has a decent chance at taking the nomination. But tonight, if he doesn’t get asked a question that starts with “in a recent editorial, the Orlando Sun Sentinel called for you to resign if you don’t do your job” I would be absolutely shocked. Rubio is too intelligent a man not to be prepared for it. But, if he answers “liberal media trying to take me down, Barack Obama missed votes and plays golf, blah blah” I think he is doomed. The conservative base may cheer, but the broader electorate won’t. The rest of us have to work for a living.
So, what will the Florida Boys do tonight? I don’t know—but they both know there will always be a home, back home. I hear the place is filled with retirees.
October 28th, 2015
Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)
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