Jeb: Why is he losing and how can he win?
This week marks one year from Election Day 2016. After all we’ve been through, we’re still a full year away. That’s a very long time; it’s longer than the lifespan of the average ABC sitcom, or the amount of time it is acceptable to like Carly Rae Jepsen. The latest story of this far off election is that Jeb Bush’s campaign is dead. What makes this remarkable is that Bush entered the race as the presumed frontrunner; he raised over $100 million, and had the backing of the establishment. Jeb was supposed to be ‘the smart Bush.’ Honestly, I don't know what to think of a family where the smart brother's name is Jeb. Jeb sounds like the name of a guy who has his name honored on the wall of the local rib joint, or the guy down the street with the pet opossum. Now Jeb’s sitting on 4% in the polls, and the press is waiting for him to drop out. What happened? 1. Bush is losing to Marco Rubio. Part of Bush’s appeal was that he was the inevitable frontrunner who is most likely to win. That no longer seems to be the case. Marco Rubio has taken over the mantle as the candidate to be backed by the conventional, establishment Republicans. In the last debate, Bush’s fumbled attack on Rubio and Rubio’s subsequent comeback gave voters a side by side comparison between the youthful and charismatic Rubio and the meek, boring Bush.
2. Bush is running the wrong campaign at the wrong time. As I discussed in my last column, this is the year of the political outsider. Republican voters have become so anti-government, that government experience is more of a burden than a blessing. Problematically for Bush, much of his campaign rests on his experience in government. In an election where novices like Trump and Carson are the frontrunners, brandishing your government resume is about as good as an idea as proposing to your girlfriend at Sizzler or screening Magic Mike at your church film group meeting.
3. Bush simply isn’t a good candidate. In ideology, while he would be the most conservative nominee in GOP history, he is a moderate in terms of today’s GOP. His name straps him with the burdens of his brother’s legacy and feelings of yesterday. Bush is a self described wonk, which is one letter, a bit of excitement, and a lot of chocolate away from being a ‘Wonka’ (admit it: you’re imagining Jeb singing about a Golden Ticket and it’s beautiful). Committed to civility, Bush lacks either the requisite charisma or outrageous anger needed in today’s Republican Party.
4. Bush is failing because he is no longer inevitable. Bush was never that strong of a front runner to begin with. Unlike W or Romney, he never led by large margins in the polls; his early polling strength was largely due to name recognition. In other words, Bush had all the burdens of being a frontrunner-the attacks, media scrutiny and high expectations, without enjoying the support that should come from leading the pack. Jeb’s campaign simply asserted that they were going to be the nominee; once that aura is shattered, the rationale for his candidacy evaporates. Just claiming to be the frontrunner isn’t enough; it’s like giving yourself a nickname, calling your newborn beautiful, or IHOP’s prophecy of "Come Hungry, Leave Happy." Just because you say something a lot doesn’t make it true.
Are Bush’s presidential hopes dead? No, because in politics, much like Days of our Lives and tragically very unlike Grey’s Anatomy, someone's death does not necessarily mean that they are dead forever. Voters haven’t made up their minds, and Bush is liked by the establishment. Bush is currently launching a comeback tour under the banner of "Jeb can fix it!" which sounds more like the slogan of a local plumber or an overly enthusiastic veterinarian. Bush could still win the nomination if he does a few things differently:
- Fight back. Positive politics is better than negative politics, but Bush should at least defend himself. When Rubio charged that Bush endorsed McCain despite his missed senate votes, Bush could have retorted “I endorsed Senator McCain because he is a war hero, and because he passed more bills than you have even bothered to read. The last major bill you tried to pass was your failed immigration reform bill. Could you remind us why you no longer support a bill you wrote just two years ago?” Like Rove did for W and Atwater for HW, he needs a sharp campaign to use his $100 million to start cranking out attack ads to bury the opposition. It's how Bushes win.
- Rubio needs to rise...and then fall. Rubio’s rise is coming at a good time for Bush: two months before Iowa, there’s plenty of time for the inexperienced Rubio to be brought down by negative ads.
- Become worthy of being inevitable. Bush could be a frontrunner again, but this time he has to earn it. He has to debate well, he has to sell his policies to voters, and make the case for why experience in government is necessary rather than simply trumpet his experience in government. He has to connect to voters, get on the ground in New Hampshire and do the work. The nomination isn’t going to come for free. Past nominees, like McCain and Bill Clinton, entered the race as frontrunner only to fall but then rebounded. Bush can follow that trend.
None of this will be easy. That’s the point; winning because of inevitability is too easy. Bush has to earn it, and it’s possible that he will. However, it’s still not likely. It remains to be seen if Jeb is a candidate capable of making these changes, and it's hard to imagine the boring Bush beating the charismatic Rubio. Still, none of this matters so long as Carson and Trump remain on top. And we’re still a year away. In other words, find an ABC sitcom to watch or begin a love affair with the freeing bars from Carly Rae Jepsen. This election is going to be a while.