When one day the history of the 2016 US election campaign will be written, Wednesday’s chaotic Republican debate might be seen as the beginning of the end of Jeb Bush’s presidential ambitions.
The former governor of Florida, who is struggling to gain traction in the polls, desperately needed a breakout moment to be part of the campaign conversation. Instead, Bush flubbed the night – and the conversation among pundits is now about his demise.
“He is on death watch”, said talk show host Joe Scarborough the day after. And conservative blogger Erick Erickson tweeted: “I do like Jeb Bush. He is a good person. But he needs to start thinking about his future now.”
From the beginning of the debate in Boulder, Colorado, Bush seemed uncomfortable and listless. His answers meandered here and there. While other candidates lashed out at moderators for not giving them more questions, Bush looked resigned to it.
It seemed to capture many of the criticisms of Bush’s campaign – a little forced, a little awkward, and worst of all, tepid rather than hot.
The defining moment came early in the debate, when Bush turned a critical question for fellow Florida candidate Marco Rubio into a stunning unforced error, strategically silly and awkwardly delivered.
Rubio was confronted with the mounting criticism he has received for being chronically absent from his duties as a US senator. For weeks, Bush has been jabbing at Rubio by calling for members of Congress who don’t do their job to have their pay docked.
Bush decided this was his moment to go for a knockout blow and weighed in:
“Could I bring something up here, because I’m a constituent of the senator and I helped him and I expected that he would do constituent service, which means that he shows up to work,” Bush interjected after Rubio shrewdly blamed a media bias for singling him out unfairly in a way he said Democratic senators who ran for president didn’t face.
Bush, 62, added, “Marco, when you signed up for this, this was a six-year term, and you should be showing up to work.”
Rubio, 44, came prepared with a counterattack that deflated Bush’s offensive, citing the former Florida governor comparing himself to John McCain circa 2008.
“You know how many votes John McCain missed when he was carrying out that furious comeback that you’re now modeling after?” asked Rubio. The only reason Bush was attacking him now was that “someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you”, Rubio shot back – and the audience roared.
But instead of piling on what is a legitimate campaign issue, Bush stood there silent like a choirboy who has been caught looking at a pin-up girl.
Another awkward Bush moment came when the son and brother of deficit-responsible presidents made a bold bet. “You find a Democrat that’s for cutting taxes, cutting spending $10, I’ll give him a warm kiss,” Bush said.
Unfortunately for Bush, spending under President Barack Obama has decreased is on track to reach the lowest level in more than 50 years by 2023. (While Obama has pushed through a series of tax hikes on the wealthy and policies to expand middle class tax credits, spending on domestic and defense programs has actually been on the decline since 2010.)
Bush, who was once considered the inevitable Republican establishment candidate, never recovered during the rest of the debate with his rivals on the stage basically ignoring him.
The onetime frontrunner has been in near free-fall the last few weeks, and over the weekend huddled with his family in Houston to try to salvage his campaign.
In a rare media appearance following the meeting, former President George W. Bush assured top donors to his brother’s presidential campaign that Jeb will be a “fierce competitor” in the race for the White House and argued his experience as Florida’s governor will ultimately win over voters.
After Wednesday’s debate, that is more questionable than ever. In polls, Bush has sunk to middle single digits, trailing frontrunners Donald Trump and Ben Carson by 15 to 20 points.
Whether Bush can calm an increasingly nervous and baffled donor class is another challenge.
Bush’s campaign announced last week it was making sharp spending cuts, mainly to employee salaries, so he can intensify the organization’s focus on the first two primary states to vote, Iowa and New Hampshire.
Such a move is viewed by many in politics as an act of desperation and a sign of impending doom for a campaign, as it is proof positive that the effort has failed to raise enough money for its previously budgeted projections for operation size – all while failing to reach political goals.
Yet, there might still be hope for Bush that Republican voters will eventually rally around him and that outsiders Trump and Carson will fade.
“When was the last time the Republican Party nominated someone who had never held any kind of public position? The answer is never”, says Allan Lichtman, presidential historian at American University. “Never has the Republican Party reached out to someone who not only has never stood for election but never held public office.”