Governor Bush has not fared well in the GOP debates. Formerly the front runner, both in polling and in political gambling, Jeb Bush now sits somewhere in the mid-single digits in national polls. With political pundits regularly mocking his campaign’s inability to capitalize on its record fundraising, commentators were suggesting that the recent debate was “Jeb Bush’s last stand” and “It’s Now or Never for Jeb Bush.” Before the debate, CNN commentators reminded audiences that the debate “is a great opportunity for [Bush to show] if he’s the Commander and Chief he says.” Few of the political pundits seemed prepared to suggest that Republican voters’ weariness with the political establishment might make Bush’s performance simply irrelevant to the campaign.
Despite low expectations, Bush was shockingly decisive, assertive, and powerful. Fortunately for Bush, his imposing height in the opening lineup managed to obfuscate his distance from center stage. Although his obviously rehearsed, awkward, and nervous introduction projected precisely the wrong image for debate focussed on terrorism, his insistence that “serious times require strong leadership” portended brilliant vocabulary repetition. (He used “serious” nine times and “leadership” seven times.) Bush’s strategy was to attack Donald Trump at every opportunity. By repeating these two words, Bush hoped to create the contrast between himself, the serious leader, and Trump, who should not be taken seriously.
Governor Bush succeeded, helped by softball questions and an unusually supportive audience. As the debate progressed and he formulated the contrast between Trump and himself, he finally appeared to be the confident, decisive candidate that his supporters had been looking for. The former Republican front-runner performed as well as anyone could have hoped for.
The first question Bush faced, asking about his reference to Trump as “unhinged,” perfectly suited his strategy. Jettisoning the nervousness of the introduction, Bush answered, strongly and commandingly, that defeating ISIS in Iraq will be a more effective means of keeping Americans safe than banning Muslims. Governor Bush chose not to attack Trump’s idea as racist or Islamophobic, assaults that Trump could use to discredit Bush as “politically correct,” a damaging insult in Republican politics. Instead, he derided Trump’s plan as “not a serious proposal,” reminded the audience that banning Muslims only plays into the enemy’s hands, and concluded that “we need to engage with the Arab world.” He even included his first memorable one liner, a rarity from Bush, that got far more cheers than any of Trump’s: “So Donald, you know, is great at—at the one-liners, but he’s a chaos candidate. And he’d be a chaos president.”
The rest of the debate for Bush was characterized by further successes, as he established the contrast between himself and Trump. His strategy of using the terms “seriousness” and “leadership” to create this contrast was effective. He also continued his effective one-liners, delivering the most mentioned line on social media, “Donald, you’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency.”
How did the media react the next day? Generally, positively. The day after the debate, the front page of The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post had photos of an orating Bush, seemingly indicating that Bush’s actions were the main story. The New York Times, Washington Post, MSNBC, Politico and the New Yorker all lauded Bush’s best debate performance yet, portraying him as victorious against Trump and some even suggesting a Bush comeback. Another New York Times article quoted Mo Elleithee, executive director of the Institute of Politics and Public Service at Georgetown, an academic saying he was “surprised by how rattled Trump got in exchange with Jeb.” Mark Halperin gave Bush a B+, tied for the highest among the candidates, and Bush himself confidently declared victory.
This praise would ordinarily portend a dramatic Bush comeback, but this election is far from ordinary. When compared with what conservative voters thought of Bush’s performance, this widespread praise highlighted the mainstream pundits’ failure to understand Republican disaffection.
While the “liberal media” may laud Bush’s bashing of Trump, conservatives generally hated it. Conservative pundit Michelle Malkin commented that “that sound you hear from Las Vegas is the last psi of air leaking out of Jeb Bush’s tires. Adios.” Only 1 percent of conservative TheBlaze readers believed Bush won the debate. Conservative site Breitbart announced Trump the debate winner, with an “A” grade. Bush received a “D,” second-to-last to Kasich (whom they, perhaps appropriately, gave a “Z”) and was descirbed as “Donald Trump’s punching bag” Finally, and most concerning for the Jeb! campaign, pollster Frank Luntz’s focus group of conservative voters detested Bush’s attacks on Trump and laughed at him. Luntz tweeted, “but my focus group is laughing at Jeb. 22 of 26 members said Donald Trump won that exchange” and “my #GOPDebate focus group’s words to describe Jeb Bush: “weak,” “desperate,” and “whiny.”
So much for a Bush comeback. Indeed, the latest polls that came out after the debate, from Fox, PPP and Quinnipiac, all show Bush falling in the polls as Trump continues to rise. Bush gave the best performance one can reasonably expect of him. He may have electrified his existing supporters, but he simply cannot rise in the polls as long as Republican voters remain angry enough to support candidates like Trump and Cruz. According to the Fox poll, even if Bush were to unite the moderate faction (Bush, Christie, Pataki, Kasich, Graham) behind him, he would merely have 8 percent of the Republican vote, 19 percent if Rubio is included as a moderate. Either way, he would still have support less than half that of Trump.
To those who still believe a moderate has a chance in this election, this debate should be a wake-up call. Jeb Bush, a conservative governor and former front-runner, gave his best debate performance yet, and his reward was stagnant poll numbers. As shown by the right-wing media’s reaction, conservatives hardly bothered to attack Bush; they merely dismissed him as a joke, an inconsequential candidate out-of-touch with an angry Republican party. It is time for mainstream Americans and the mainstream media to recognize what the ultra-conservative press recognized a long time ago: Republican voters are simply too frustrated to vote for an establishment candidate like Jeb Bush.
The image featured in this article was taken by Gage Skidmore. The original image can be found here.