So you’ll know, Ted Cruz won the debate Wednesday night, and Marco Rubio came in second. More on that in a little while.
There are many variables surrounding the debate participants and whether their performance will have a major effect on the state of the still-crowded GOP race, but one thing appears immutably clear — and that is the growing inevitability of Jeb Bush’s demise as a major presidential candidate.
The fact is, Jeb just doesn’t have it.
It’s not that he can’t present policy solutions; he can. Jeb Bush has put out some very good — and very conservative — policy. What he can’t do, unfortunately, is articulate them with force and verve.
We thought Jeb’s brother, who managed to get elected and re-elected before leaving office with a 22 percent approval rating and a party in shambles wide open to lose to Barack Hussein Obama, of all people, was inarticulate. George W. used to sound like he had marbles in his mouth half the time, but until the weight of the foreign overreaches in Iraq and Afghanistan and the demoralization of his own base dragged him down he at least had some charm about him, in a “he ain’t perfect but he’s a nice guy and he’s tryin’” sort of way.
With Jeb, there is none of that. He doesn’t think on his feet, he can’t speak with passion, he looks tired and beaten and it’s clear he’s not enjoying the campaign. That doesn’t make him a bad person; no normal human being would put himself through the hell we’ve made a modern political race into.
But if you’re going to shake people down for some $100 million in PAC money, it does behoove you not to suck. And unfortunately, that’s what Jeb has done for most of this campaign and he absolutely did it in Boulder.
How bad did it get for Jeb? This bad. He tried to damage Rubio over a rather stupid issue ginned up by the Washington media and furthered by the Sun-Sentinel newspaper in Ft. Lauderdale, namely that the Senator has missed a sizable number of (basically meaningless) votes while working the road. Rubio was in the process of swatting away a question about the Sun-Sentinel’s editorial demanding that he resign by noting that the paper had been far more forgiving of missed votes in the Senate by John Kerry and Barack Obama when they were running for president, something that got the crowd rolling, and along came Bush to lunge face-first into a buzzsaw. He whined that Rubio was cheating him as a constituent, which will resonate with no one — you’re a politician running against him for president, not his constituent, and nobody cares about your problems — and when Rubio’s belittling answer came (“Someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you”), Bush’s body language looked almost like he’d been punched in the beans.
Bush stands the better part of a foot taller than Marco Rubio and is almost a generation older, and Rubio was in complete command of the exchange in an almost first-day-of-prison sort of way. It was a seminal moment.
That was early. You barely saw him say anything else other than getting a comically stupid question about federal regulation of fantasy football, making a cute quip about how his team was doing, and then making vague noises about how the NFL should regulate the business but maybe the feds shouldn’t. The Weekly Standard’s Jonathan Last judged, correctly, that “Bush’s attack on Rubio was both a tactical and strategic failure. His campaign is cooked.”
This matters, because it puts paid to the entire narrative of the 2016 GOP race as it was built from the outset and the assumptions surrounding that narrative that have informed voter behavior to date.
Jeb Bush as the inevitable GOP nominee, the Establishment choice that the grassroots is powerless to combat, is the single largest factor animating Donald Trump’s rise in the polls. That rise may or may not have stalled, as multiple polls show that Ben Carson has either caught him or passed him (though there is still disagreement on this point), but the race has for quite some time been cast to Republican voters as a choice between Bush the establishmentarian and Trump the iconoclast. Trump has profited greatly from that proposition, and it has fueled his ascent to the top of the polls.
But that is no longer how this race is perceived, because no one sees Bush as inevitable anymore. And if that’s the case, voters terrified of a Mitt Romney-style fix being in are now free to vote for the candidate they’d really like to see win instead of playing defense and supporting the one they think can stop the candidate they’re terrified of.
Which, for a large number of the GOP’s most active voters, could well be Cruz. The Texas Senator put on a commanding performance, including the best moment of any of the GOP’s debates when he took a question about the impending GOP budget surrender, ignored it, and launched into a diatribe about the atrociously “gotcha” questions the CNBC moderators were asking.
“The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” he thundered. “This is not a cage match. And you look at the questions: ‘Donald Trump, are you a comic book villain?’ ‘Ben Carson, can you do math?’ ‘John Kasich, will you insult two people over here?’ ‘Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign?’ ‘Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?’”
Cruz then demanded questions on substantive issues. He had just gotten one, but at that point it didn’t matter. And when CNBC’s Carl Quintanilla tried to make that point, Cruz cut him off. “Carl, I’m not finished yet,” he said. “The contrast of the Democratic debate, where every fawning question from the media was, ‘Which of you is more handsome and wise?’”
Then he really drove his assault home. “And nobody watching at home believes that any of the moderators have any intention of voting in a Republican primary,” Cruz added. “The questions that are being asked shouldn’t be trying to get people to tear into each other.”
Fox News’ media critic Howard Kurtz called the debate a “trainwreck” for CNBC, and a disaster for the whole news business. But despite the full-throated bashing of the moderators by RNC chairman Reince Priebus, it was a terrific night for the GOP field, Jeb’s face-plant notwithstanding.
Each of the other 10 had their moments pummeling the moderators when they weren’t ignoring them. Rubio joined Cruz in the top tier, as did Chris Christie thanks to his picking up the fantasy football question Bush fumbled and savaging the moderators for even bringing it up.
Ben Carson, who had a so-so debate all told, shone after getting a gotcha question implying he’s a homophobe and voicing a cogent objection that one can be opposed to gay marriage without bearing some sort of scarlet letter in that regard. Donald Trump had a quiet performance, but he poured insult on CNBC’s injury at the end of the debate by essentially taking credit for forcing the network to limit the debate to two hours “so we can get the hell out of here,” and then verbally throttling the leftist zealot John Harwood (who probably needs a new profession after botching a question from his own reporting of Rubio’s tax plan) when the latter objected. Carly Fiorina took an insulting question about getting fired at Hewlett-Packard and answered it memorably well.
Better than Jeb were Mike Huckabee, who seemed over-eager to tailor his message to the 65-and-over crowd but did allude to the rumors of all the dead bodies of Clinton adversaries piling up over the years, Rand Paul, who would have had a good debate but for the fact most of what he said on policy Ted Cruz also said but with more passion, and John Kasich, who needs to talk about more than Ohio and might consider not flailing his hands about like Bernie Sanders when he speaks.
But what has been rumored for a while is clear now — Jeb Bush is not the frontrunner, and he won’t be a factor in this race. And because that is clear, we now know that an era — and an unsatisfactory one at that — in Republican politics that began with his father’s election in 1988 is now over.
This is no longer the party of Bushes. We’re moving on. We can thank the clowns at CNBC for that, if nothing else.
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