September 4, 2015
A couple days ago, I happened to mention the Jeb Bush campaign was on life support, mostly due to the candidate. As people are prone to, I set a semi-arbitrary date for the wounded presumptive Bush 45 to resurrect his spirt, soul and prospects for 2016.
That date is September 16. If the date seems vaguely familiar for reasons other than the birthday of a friend or relative, it’s also Reagan Library Debate Day. Based on how CNN is calculating polling averages, once again Jeb will stand on The Donald’s side. Based on how the insults have flown between the two, a showdown is imminent.
Can Jeb hold his own?
The bad news is if he can’t, he’s completely done. You can’t let Trump turn you into a bowl of stuttering verbal jello on national TV (ratings will likely exceed the last debate, which was already a record) and have a viable campaign. The major concern with Jeb is weakness and poor oratorical skills. For some, the whole dynasty thing is a deal breaker, but those folks weren’t supporting him anyway. Common Core and relative moderation on immigration is a dead stop for others; again, Jeb wasn’t getting their votes.
There’s no reason for Jeb to exist if he can’t communicate effectively. Jeb knows he’s one emasculated debate performance away from being obliterated. Much like his father, Jeb often sounds either weak or attempting to manufacture energy. He hasn’t run in a truly competitive election since 1998. For what it’s worth, he’s wearing the wrong glasses.
None of the other candidates have a reason to want to rescue him. If this was Survivor, the others would happily take advantage of a supposed favorite making a mistake and do whatever they could to vote him off the island before he got his bearings.
Worst of all, it’s an asymmetric warfare situation. Trump is the guerrilla warrior, Bush is standing exposed in a red coat (yes, that’s an awkward mixed historical metaphor). Trump gets to say whatever he wants, however he wants, whenever he wants. It’s his brand. If he doesn’t say 3 or 4 things nobody would have previously believed a serious presidential candidate would say, his fans will think he’s gone establishment.
In the meanwhile, Bush is the responsible adult candidate, the one who may not excite you (or anyone else) but can govern well. He needs to defend himself, he needs to go on offense, but he can’t say anything too controversial or inflammatory. This sort of extemporaneous needle to thread often leads to Bush Family Verbal Confusion Disorder.
So far, the Jeb Response is “Donald really isn’t conservative” or “Donald isn’t really a Republican.” Sometimes the message is delivered in an ad, sometimes in Jeb’s stump speech, sometimes in a tweet. Regardless of the location, it’s no more digestible than green eggs & ham. Trump’s supporters don’t care about his ideological inconsistency. Other voters aren’t being won over by Bush constantly repeating his conservative credentials.
He’s pushing back, but wrong message, often flat (even if noisier) tone. It’s understandable Team Jeb hasn’t figured this one out yet. Successful politicians (say what you will about how Jeb sounds sometimes, but he got elected statewide in Florida twice) work their way up the ladder based on a certain approach. Their consultants and advisors won previous elections based on a certain approach. This approach did not account for a candidate like Trump.
For any candidate in the race who has previously won elections, they are currently operating in an environment different than where they learned how to run. Presidential campaigns are already a whole different animal than elections for any other office. At least the madness is usually similar from cycle to cycle, and all serious campaigns have a couple participants who played before on some level. There are things to study from previous years, ways to prepare.
This is like getting called up to the majors after spending years preparing in the minors, only to discover that soon after your debut, major league baseball is now played underwater. All that practice working on your swing, running the bases, chasing down fly balls, and now you’re supposed to swim and look out for large fish. When you invariably ingest a little salt water and choke, the announcers and crowd laugh at you. Meanwhile, the pitcher has special scuba gear, makes insulting gestures after you swing and miss and loudly proclaims they’re opening a new wing of the Hall of Fame for him.
The good news is if Jeb somehow pulls off the performance of a lifetime, sounding confident, self-assured, and perhaps occasionally wry, it will act as a defibrillator for his campaign, pushing him forward and returning it to the top tier. His father and brother both faced defining tests in their successful campaigns, each escaping possible doom. Like 41 and 43, Jeb does better when he has time to prepare, and he knows what’s coming.
If he or his team are ready with a response, it’s a closely guarded secret.
12 days. Tick tock.