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  1. Florida Politics

Is this the beginning of the end for Jeb Bush? Too early to tell

Presidential candidate Jeb Bush speaks during the CNBC Republican Presidential Debate on Wednesday in Boulder, Colo. Fourteen Republican presidential candidates are participating in the third set of Republican presidential debates.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Presidential candidate Jeb Bush speaks during the CNBC Republican Presidential Debate on Wednesday in Boulder, Colo. Fourteen Republican presidential candidates are participating in the third set of Republican presidential debates. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Published Oct. 30, 2015

After Jeb Bush's weak debate performance Wednesday night, the once mighty frontrunner faces grim cultural comparisons across social media:

Dead Man Walking. The Walking Dead. That Bruce Willis character in the Sixth Sense who doesn't realize he's dead.

"Yeah, Jeb Bush Is Probably Toast," declared the headline for a piece by Fivethirtyeight.com's Nate Silver, who enjoys debunking conventional wisdom.

In Bush's case, Silver agreed with it.

"Could Bush ride out the storm? Maybe. But his problem isn't a mere lack of 'momentum;' his candidacy has always been flawed. Instead of being the most electable conservative — the traditional profile of the Republican nominee — Bush has never looked all that electable or all that conservative," Silver wrote.

Voting doesn't start for three months, and it's worth remembering that at this point in the last election cycle Herman Cain was the frontrunner. National Republican polls in 2007 showed Rudy Giuliani with twice the support of eventual nominee John McCain.

Bush still has mountains of money to spend, and an actual record of accomplishment in government that none of the other leading contenders can touch.

But conventional wisdom is starting to set in: Jeb is doomed, and that debate sealed the deal.

It's too early for that assessment given his record, resources and potential, but Bush can't afford for this narrative to continue much longer. Other than early fundraising, he hasn't offered up much evidence to counter the growing chorus of doubters.

His back against the wall, Bush needed to show some grit and fire in the debate — the way Mitt Romney did when it mattered most in 2012, the way Barack Obama did, too.

Instead, the former Florida governor looked small and scolding as former protege Marco Rubio effortlessly swatted down Bush's criticism. He spoke less than anybody else.

"Incompetent questioning yes, but this was the most important debate to date: it finished off the Bush campaign," David Frum, the former George W. Bush speechwriter, tweeted after the CNBC debate.

Matt Drudge made light of Bush's Paleo diet on Twitter: "Jeb Bush can eat carbs now."

One year ago, virtually every reporter in Florida who closely covered Jeb Bush as governor doubted he would run for president. He would have no patience for today's political and media climate, most of us assumed, and would much prefer to remain a senior statesman in his party while making scads of money in the private sector.

Those perceptions may have been more prescient than we realized. Jeb never had the self-effacing, everyman charm of his brother, nor any track record for winning tough elections. Day after day, he looks miserable, even when insisting he's not miserable.

"I have a lot of really cool things that I can do other than sit around and be miserable listening to people demonize me and me feeling compelled to demonize them. That is a joke," he said in South Carolina over the weekend. "Elect Trump if you want that."

To CNN late Wednesday: "I'm not a performer. If they're looking for an entertainer-in-chief, I'm probably not your guy."

He is running on competence and a record of accomplishment in government from 15 years ago. But much of the GOP base today wants passion, inspiration and a break from the GOP of yesteryear.

Nancy McGowan, a Republican fundraiser and activist in Jacksonville who once enthusiastically supported Gov. Bush, says he is the one who changed — not the Republican Party.

"In 2016, Americans are looking for a fighter, someone who will uphold the rule of law on immigration, cherish and guard the U.S. Constitution, protect our national sovereignty and listen to voters in the Heartland," said McGowan, who prefers Rubio, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.

"Jeb is not listening to primary voters on key issues. He is more aligned with the Republican establishment, big corporate (interests) and the Chamber of Commerce who care less about small businesses, American exceptionalism than their profits and globalist worldview," said McGowan, who sees the Bush campaign as all but dead at this point.

On Fox News from New Hampshire on Thursday, Bush brushed off the bleak talk.

"We have more than 100 days left before we go to the Iowa caucuses," he said. "I knew this was going to be a long journey. But to suggest the campaign is 'terminal,' come on, that's pretty funny."

His supporters fail to see the humor.

Contact Adam C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.

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