What’s the opposite of an exclamation point? A question mark? An ellipsis? Whatever it is, Jeb Bush’s performance on the CNBC stage on Wednesday night was the equivalent of slapping it on his campaign signs in place of his chosen punctuation.
The former Florida governor entered the third Republican debate needing to do something, anything to convince his deep-pocketed supporters that maybe, just maybe he wasn’t running his luxury yacht aground. Bush, though, failed to live up to even the lowest of expectation. Here’s a small and incomplete sampling of his reviews from around the Internet:
- Salon's Heather Digby Parton: “In last night's GOP debate, Bush sealed his fate. He'll never be president. No way, no how."
- New Republic’s Jeet Heer: “This might have been Jeb’s Waterloo, the moment when he lost everything once and for all.”
- New York's Jonathan Chait: "Rubio dispatched Bush with a tone so understated, and almost pitying, it marked the instant and widely acknowledged death of Bush’s hopes."
- Slate’s Jamelle Bouie: “[I]t was do or die. And Bush died.”
- Bloomberg's John Heilemann: “[T]he scale of the failure is now evident for anyone with eyes to see.”
- The Economist: “[I]t is hard to see him coming back into contention now.”
- National Review’s Tim Alberta: “Swing and a miss. It was the story of the night, the story of the debate, and it might soon be the story of Jeb Bush’s campaign.”
- Weekly Standard’s Jonathan Last: “[Bush’s] campaign is cooked.”
- The Daily Caller's Matt Lewis: "[Bush] now risks tarnishing his reputation if he continues to run an embarrassing campaign.”
- Red State’s Erick Erickson: “It is time for Jeb Bush to take his campaign out back and shoot it.”*
- Drudge Report’s Matt Drudge: “Jeb Bush can eat carbs now.”
Woof. I could go on, but you get the point. This wasn’t just liberal schendfraude over the apparent demise of a man with the last name of Bush; it was the general assessment from across the political spectrum. Worse still for Jeb, the consensus coming out of Boulder, Colorado, wasn’t just that he had lost the debate, it’s that he had lost his shot at his party’s nomination in the process.
Political narratives, of course, have been wrong before. (See: Donald Trump’s current place in the GOP polls.) And I’m not ready to pronounce Jeb’s campaign dead just yet. He turned in a bad performance, but it wasn’t one that could be boiled down to a simple sound bite to be played ad nauseam on cable news. (His social media team, though, might want to reconsider tweeting out the moment he got schooled by Marco Rubio as though their man was the victor.) Bush still has millions in the bank and a last name loved by his party’s establishment. He can stay in the race for the foreseeable future if he wants to—and if Rubio struggles in the face of the onslaught of scrutiny that will now be coming his way, it’s conceivable that Bush could regain his lead in the establishment lane.
But. But! The Jeb is toast narrative will only make that more unlikely. Jeb began the year as the favorite for his party’s nomination—and, until recently, remained a favorite—exactly because the political and media establishments saw him as one. But while he benefited from that self-fulfilling prophecy, he’s now in danger of falling victim to a new one. If the establishment no longer sees him as a man who can bring order to a chaotic nominating contest, voters won’t either. The media used to present him as the smarter Bush, the more capable Bush, the Bush who should have been president. Now that’s all gone. And as Nate Silver points out, the conventional wisdom matters for Bush more than most “because Bush is running a conventional campaign.”
Bush never seemed to be enjoying life on the trail when he had the conventional winds at his back. It’s unlikely he’ll find life as an also-ran any more enjoyable. The question, then, is if he’s willing to fight on, and against the solidified narrative, from the fringes of the next debate stage. Jeb? Jeb…
*Correction, Oct. 29, 2015: This post originally misspelled pundit Erick Erickson’s first name.