Just a few months ago, Jeb topped the polls: he dominated all other candidates in fundraising, with a record total; he had the best odds on political betting markets; and many pundits predicted a Jeb! victory. Now, with his campaign funding drying up, recent news of cuts to his staff, collapsing poll numbers and political experts already conducting a Jeb! autopsy, the American people (and more importantly donors) were looking to see if Jeb could, with a stellar debate performance, reverse the downward trend. Perhaps a good night could remind voters why they once thought he should be their nominee. Unfortunately for Governor Bush, his pathetic night probably ended his presidential hopes. Few had high expectations, but even fewer had even their low expectations met.
In order to win the vestigial moderate wing of the Republican Party, while simultaneously reminding the base of his conservative credentials, Governor Bush needed to present realistic and intelligent policy proposals. Although he possesses neither the rhetorical skills nor demagogic platform of an attack dog, he shines when talking about his impressive economic record and when proposing smart and detailed fiscal plans. A CNBC-moderated debate on the economy, coupled with numerous opportunities to expound upon policy, offered Jeb a chance to stand out. Not only did Governor Bush fail to stand out, but also he failed to reaffirm his platform or exude decisiveness. Kasich claimed the memorable moderate moment early by attacking Trump and Carson, thus crowding out post-debate media coverage of Bush’s own moderate platform. Jeb’s many missed opportunities and confused responses resulted in failure for him and his campaign.
After a weak introduction, his first real contribution was to engage in a transparently rehearsed spat with the second-most-liked candidate over an issue that few voters care about. He proceeded to rebuke Senator Rubio for not spending enough time in the Senate. Rubio proceeded to deflect Jeb’s attack by reminding Jeb that he has not cared about prior candidates missing votes and that his current pseudo-concern is merely a political ploy. To make matters worse, Governor Bush failed to counterattack effectively and merely retreated. With so many ludicrous proposals put forth Wednesday night, it is a mystery why Jeb chose this topic, of all topics, to go on the offensive. It is difficult to imagine Republican voters, who watched a debate saturated with animosity toward Washington, getting incensed over Rubio’s not spending enough time there.
Jeb’s response to a critique of his proposed capital gains tax cut was esoteric and muddled. Jeb should have taken the opportunity to appeal to his core constituency, pro-business conservatives, and explain why lowering taxes on investment spurs economic growth—an easy chance to appeal to his donor base. This would have helped stem the tide of donor exodus. Instead, he convolutedly explained why lowering taxes on wealthy traders would reduce economic inequality. Not only was his logic both dubious and difficult to follow, but he also has little chance of wooing those concerned with income inequality. Thus, rather than remind his supporters why they supported him in the past, Jeb simply looked weak.
Governor Bush’s later ditherings hit new lows. He refused to announce a position on a $1 tax/$10 spending cut proposal, thus failing to win moderate or conservative support. Jeb could have taken the opening to either remind the conservative wing that he is, in fact, a conservative by refusing any tax increases, or show the moderate wing that sense has not departed from the Republican party. Either way, he would have at least appeared decisive, confident, and effective. Instead, he sounded exactly like the substance-less candidates he should be distancing himself from.
He even bungled his chance to appear personable to voters. The question about Fantasy Football, although not strictly economic, at least gave Bush the rare opportunity to seem affable and relatable. After adroitly discussing his fantasy football success, Bush blundered by declining once again to state a position, this time on sports betting. He missed the obvious answer to one of the only softball questions of the night: of course Washington should not regulate fantasy sports. Bush’s equivocation allowed Chris Christie to interject. Rebuking the moderators for focussing on fantasy football, rather than real problems like ISIS, Christie proceeded to state the obvious response: we should not allow Washington greater power to regulate. This earned him one of the loudest ovations of the night. The opportunity to win this applause was handed to Bush, but he failed spectacularly to take advantage of it. In the end, Governor Bush had less speaking time than any other candidate.
Based on his horrendous performance, the third debate will undoubtedly mark another fall in Jeb’s standing in the polls. This will most likely be exacerbated by the fact that the other three moderate Republican candidates, Chris Christie, John Kasich and Marco Rubio, all had good nights. Rubio is now strongly favored. If Jeb is to remain competitive, he must play to his strengths: take decisive and substantive positions, and continue to stress his record in Florida.
Jeb better hope Gronk has a particularly big day this Sunday, or he will have a rough weekend mourning the increasingly rapid decline of his campaign.
The image featured in this article was taken by Gage Skidmore. The original image can be found here.
Adam Chan is a fourth-year Fundamentals and Economics double major. This summer, he interned at CNN, focusing on the Russia investigation. Previously he was an intern at the R Street Institute, a think-tank in DC and an extern at the Department of the Interior. At the Gate, Adam was a Senior Writer in his first year and the Opinion Editor last year. On campus, Adam is also President of the UChicago Political Union, is Vice President of Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity, and has been a Team Leader at the institute of Politics. He loves studying political philosophy and history, enjoys playing card and board games with friends, traveling, and eating exotic food.