One would be hard-pressed to find a better year-end encapsulation of how the Republican establishment has screwed up the presidential contest than news of a certain ad-buy Tuesday. Jeb Bush’s super PAC, Right to Rise—after burning through $40 million already—has made a $1.4 million buy in … Iowa? To go after Sen. Marco Rubio? Yes, the same Rubio who currently polls at a distant third in the first caucus state, one that no one (including Rubio) expects him to win.
The ad itself goes after Rubio’s attendance record in the Senate, the same line of attack that Bush tried and failed cataclysmically to stick in Rubio’s face in an October debate.
“Presidential candidate fundraises instead of attending hearing”—now there’s some fresh stuff. The questionable effectiveness of this retread aside, what’s the strategy here? Bush isn’t really contesting Iowa—his official campaign announced Wednesday that it was canceling its remaining Iowa ad-buys—and Rubio isn’t in position to win Iowa, either. It’s possible that Mike Murphy, the chief disburser of funds at Right to Rise, is simply lighting money on fire as a performance art piece challenging contemporary absurdities of unrestricted campaign finance regulation. That we could all appreciate.
But it’s much more boring than that. Right to Rise has recognized that Rubio is expected to place third in Iowa and is trying to prevent him from doing so, to “blunt his narrative” or whatever heading into New Hampshire. It’s not like Bush has much chance of placing third in Iowa; he’s not campaigning there and for good reason: He’s disliked by Iowa Republicans. But if Murphy’s money can shove Rubio behind, say, Ben Carson in the final Iowa caucus results, Rubio would theoretically head into New Hampshire carrying loads of negative press about how the supposed leading establishment candidate can’t close the deal (for third place, in one state).
It’s not just Rubio in Iowa that Team Jeb! is going after. More pertinently, Right to Rise also released a New Hampshire ad going after Jeb’s other establishment rivals in the first primary state, Govs. Chris Christie and John Kasich. The ad, “Three Governors,” makes some puffy claims about Bush’s record as governor of Florida. “Three Republican governors,” the ad says. “Which governor won national praise for tough leadership handling nine hurricanes? Which governor made his state No. 1 in job creation? Which governor led the fight to stop Obamacare expansion in his state? And which governor laid out a tough plan to destroy ISIS months before the Paris attacks? Jeb Bush.” We hadn’t known that Bush, who left office in 2007, “led the fight to stop Obamacare expansion in his state,” but apparently he made some calls.
So, kneecap Rubio in Iowa to hurt his chances in New Hampshire; take down fellow permanent New Hampshire lodgers Christie and Kasich in New Hampshire itself; and then leave the Granite State as the designated establishment candidate around whom moderates can rally before losing to Donald Trump or Sen. Ted Cruz. This looks an awful lot like an execution of the Murphy plan floated to Politico a few weeks ago: “[S]pend the bulk of the $75 million to carpet bomb Rubio, Cruz, Carson, Chris Christie—everyone but Trump. The thinking: Making the race into a binary choice between Bush and Trump might be the only way a majority of primary voters go with Bush.” Except they would want Carson to beat Rubio in Iowa, and they’re apparently not bothering with Cruz, which is odd, since Cruz is poised to win the first month’s worth of nominating contests.
Well, a strategy’s a strategy. May we point out just how sad this strategy is? It’s not Murphy’s fault, entirely, that Bush has proven to be an inept campaigner who’s unable to build traction anywhere. His job is to come up with some strategy to get this boob of a candidate through the primaries, and if step one of that strategy is something as hilarious as “spend lots of money to make sure Marco Rubio doesn’t finish third in Iowa,” well, at least one can admire Murphy’s professional loyalty to a doomed cause.
Let’s blame the stupid Bush donors instead, the dolts who gave this guy $100 million upfront without asking for so much as a single demonstration of political skill in a 17-man, 2015 political environment. In September, I asked if the donor class had created a monster in Bush: a weak candidate with too much pride and money who would get in the way of a more viable candidate like Rubio or even, at this point, Christie. This is exactly what his super PAC is now doing. It would—even now!—be foolish to completely rule out Bush’s chance of winning the nomination, simply because of all that money and the breadth of his national organization. But it’s a slim chance, and it requires the total destruction of every other candidate whom the party establishment could tolerate.