Ruth: It's all theater, and Bush's acting skills need work

Published Oct. 30, 2015

By all accounts, former Gov. Jeb Bush is surrounded by any number of apparatchiks, apologists, enablers, factotums and sherpas dedicated to advancing his waning political ambitions. He should fire all of them, including the family members, who apparently still cling to the delusion he might one day reside in the White House.

Stop laughing. Oh go ahead, everyone else is.

Bush should seek the wise counsel of the one person who has the experience and insight he desperately needs at the moment: Arizona U.S. Sen. John McCain. Long ago and far away, back in 2007, McCain was all but written off as a Republican presidential contender. He had no money, barely any staff and imploding poll numbers.

But the former Vietnam War POW hunkered down and slowly, steadily, methodically rebuilt his candidacy from scratch to go on to win the nomination. It was one of the great political comebacks.

After Wednesday night's in-the-tank appearance during the latest Republican presidential debate, Jeb disdainfully dismissed the notion that his campaign was wanting. "I'm not a performer," Bush sniffed, after spending two hours on stage exhibiting all the warmth and charisma of an Easter Island statue.

Bush is wrong, of course. He is indeed a performer in the political theater of the GOP presidential nominating process. He's just not very good at it.

Much like the U.S. Open in golf, which is staged on extremely demanding courses, the intent is not to punish the world's greatest players but to identify them. The same holds true for the nation's presidential aspirants, who subject themselves to an insanely protracted hazing ritual of scrutiny. Some revel in the experience. Others whine about it. See: Bush, Jeb.

By any measure, the entire nominating process in general and the debates in particular are performance art. The preening, sneering, sourpuss Donald Trump is exhibit A evidence of that. And Wednesday's … whatever you want to call it was most certainly much less of a "debate" than a Tower of Caterwauling.

Bush had one essential mission to accomplish — flight suit optional. All he needed to do was bring down Florida's freshman beanie U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a politician so cravenly ambitious, so patently fawning he makes Eddie Haskell look like the Dalai Lama. How hard could this be?

The governor could have pointed out that for all practical purposes Rubio, who claims to be a conservative champion of rugged individualism, has spent almost his entire adult life collecting a public paycheck. He could have raised the issue of Rubio's abuse of a GOP credit card when he served as the speaker of the Florida House. He could have couched Rubio's tepid attendance record in the Senate in terms of even when he does show up for work, he still has accomplished nothing of any note. He could have snarked that Rubio spends more time on Fox News than the floor of the Senate. And he could have raised Rubio's recent huffy comments about what a lousy job it is to be U.S. senator.

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Instead, after Jeb offered up an awkward, mealy-mouthed attack on Rubio's voting record, the senator quickly responded by noting the criticism was little more than a sadly contrived effort by his old pal to attack him for some tawdry political gain. And after that, Bush had — nothing.

For all his shortcomings, Rubio clearly understands he was being judged not by the content of his policy positions but by the color of his performance.

For Bush, a scion of one of the nation's oldest political dynasties, not to grasp the importance of optics in a heated political campaign would seem to be a disqualifying factor.

Still, it is worth noting that Bush has never warmed up to the retail politics of the stump. In his three runs for governor, Bush campaigned with all the joy in his heart as if it were some kind of court-ordered community service.

Bush has promised to improve his debate performance skills. But he is 62. Can you really teach a stuffy old heir new shticks?

A few days ago, a petulant Bush complained he really doesn't need to put up with the indignities of being bullied by the likes of Trump since he has so many other "cool" things he could be doing with his time.

It was so Jeb. He doesn't really want to campaign for the presidency. He wants to be courted.