As last night’s Republican presidential debate drew to a close, to the extent that the former GOP establishment frontrunner Jeb Bush made an impression, it was that of longtime Corleone family Consigliere Tom Hagen. A bright and loyal man, a competent fixer, he was also a man of an earlier generation and he seemed to be the last to know it. “You’re not a wartime Consigliere, Tom,” Hagen was gingerly informed by a younger man who had been in many ways his protégé, but who was now shaping the future of the organization to which Hagen had devoted his life. “Things could get rough with the move we’re making.”
Jeb Bush was a good governor; a policy-oriented and capable politician. In another environment, or maybe another era, he might have done better. As it stands, however, Bush has been fighting the last war since he got into this race. The prevailing conditions that yielded Republican presidential nominations to his father and brother no longer apply, but Jeb Bush appears to be the only person to fail to recognize that.
Bush inaugurated this campaign for the White House about as sourly as he could have. The former Florida governor bitterly resented the 2012 primary process that he believed had rendered Mitt Romney unelectable. “I used to be a conservative, and I watch these debates and I’m wondering,” Bush said at the time, lamenting the insular and parochial nature of that contest. He carried that resentment well into the 2016 race, confirmed by his contention that he intended to “lose the primary to win the general.” The only way in which that would be possible is to do precisely what he did: enter the race early, lock down the party’s donors, foster the impression that his campaign was an undefeatable juggernaut, and hope to scare his most viable competitors out of the contest. Almost all of that went according to plan, but the intimidation factor that Bush had cultivated failed to have the intended effect.
The beginning of the end for Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign was probably reached at some point between his first mammoth financial disclosure and his lackluster second disclosure, which has resulted in theatrical budget-cutting exercises like the slashing of salaries and doing without office furniture. The end of the end might be some time off, but Jeb Bush’s presidential aspirations reached terminal velocity last night. In a Shakespearean twist, it was his protégé, the young Senator Marco Rubio, who delivered the unkindest cut of all.
The notion that Marco Rubio should resign his Senate seat because he missed slightly fewer votes than did Barack Obama at this point in 2007 is laughably partisan, and it carries about as much weight as the notion that Rubio is an out-of-touch one-percenter because he owns a modestly appointed fishing dinghy. Still, that is the demand of Rubio’s home state paper, the Broward County-based Sun-Sentinel. Jeb Bush had been signaling for nearly a week that he would echo this line of attack, and Rubio was perfectly prepared for it. The Florida senator defended himself against the Sunshine State paper’s ambush by noting that it had not displayed nearly as much concern over either Obama’s missed votes or John Kerry’s when it endorsed both of them for the presidency. After Rubio had called it a “double standard” betraying media bias, the crowd cheered. The issue had been neutralized for conservative voters, but Bush declined to notice. He pressed ahead robotically with the attack he had been preparing for days.
“I mean, literally, the Senate — what is it, like a French work week?” Bush said. “You get, like, three days where you have to show up.” His advisors perhaps had not considered the paradox of his contention that Rubio should get back to work passing new laws conservative voters don’t want in an institution they loathe, but no matter. Rubio absorbed the assault, parried deftly, and thrust home. With passion building to a crescendo, Rubio noted that Bush did not care when John McCain had missed a similar number of votes in either 1999 or 2007, that he was only doing so now “because someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you,” and that he would decline to reciprocate. Twice, Bush tried to interject but was steamrolled over by Rubio. Instead, he stood paralyzed, meekly smiling as he absorbed blow after blow. It was a withering moment for Bush’s campaign, and one that might prove fatal.
After receding into the background for the remainder of the debate, Bush was later asked if he the unregulated fantasy sports market needed more oversight. In another display of poor political instincts, Bush said that it did but that the federal government shouldn’t do the regulating – as though there was a third option. In response to this, New Jersey’s Chris Christie generated his wildest applause of the night by asserting that this issue was the least of the country’s worries, rattled off a brief list of the real challenges facing the nation, and attacked the moderators for wasting the public’s time. For Bush, his two most viable establishment-wing competitors in the race had bested him badly.
Jeb Bush has a choice to make. While he is burning through cash at a staggering rate, his campaign could survive on accumulated inertia for some time. He could drift into the winter of 2016 and hope to manufacture a victory in New Hampshire or South Carolina that positions him well for the South-heavy March primaries and, eventually, Florida. If this were an election cycle with precedent, that would be a perfectly viable strategy. But the hour is late, the donor class is nervous (as evidenced by the amount of money still on the sidelines), and the party’s establishment voters are hopelessly fractured while the conservative populist wing is united and energized. He could make a grand gesture, and shape the future of his party. He could also continue to play the spoiler in this race and hope to reignite the fire under his candidacy with the help of some yet-unknown exogenous event.
It would be surprising, though, if a few of those nervous Bush backers aren’t sitting down with their man today and having the same conversation that Michael had with Tom.
Like Hagen, Jeb Bush is a good man who deserved better; a conservative of repute and with a record of accomplishments, contrary to the fevered exhortations of his detractors. But his moment has passed, and his talents can almost certainly be put to better use elsewhere in the organization to which he is devoted. “Maybe I could help,” the resigned Hagen said in a perfunctory display of resistance to his fate. But the decision had already been made, and the reins of power passed. There was nothing left to discuss. “You’re out, Jeb.”