A few hours before the third Republican presidential debate on Wednesday night at the University of Colorado at Boulder, I was hunched over my laptop, either hard at work or studying Google Maps to determine the nearest dispensary of a form of medication (absurdly) not yet legal in the Empire State, when I overheard some gasbag (and trust me, being a bloviator of the first order myself, I know the type) holding forth about Jeb Bush. About how the debate was a “do-or-die” event for the former Florida governor. A “make-or-break moment” with “everything on the line,” in which the stakes were “the whole ball of wax.” Etc.
After 20-plus years in this racket, my instinctive inclination is to dismiss out of hand such declarations as overheated, hyperbolic gibberish. Of course in presidential politics there are moments that prove to be turning points, either laying a candidate low or vaulting him to greater glory. But it’s rare that such occasions can be predicted in advance. And even rarer is the single setback, however crushing or humiliating, from which a sufficiently determined and resourceful candidate finds it simply impossible to recover.
A few hours later, however, after absorbing the sheer and epic awfulness of Bush’s debate performance and the collective reaction to it, I had little choice but to concede: maybe the gasbag had a point. Among the political professionals, reporters, and pundits swarming the debate site, the verdict was unanimous and scathing. Across the ideological spectrum on my Twitter feed and in my e-mail inbox, same deal. The pithiest and most damning assessment was issued by @drudge: “Jeb Bush can eat carbs now.” Which was another way of saying, to paraphrase Bruce Willis as Butch Coolidge in Pulp Fiction, Jeb’s dead, baby—Jeb’s dead.
The Bush campaign naturally insists that Jeb is still very much alive. “This contest isn't about who is the best debater or who has the best sound bites,” Sally Bradshaw, Bush's longtime chief adviser, wrote in an e-mail to Bloomberg. “It's about who can be the president. Who can actually change Washington. That's hard to do if you are a part of the problem. Jeb isn't going anywhere.”
A snarky wag might agree with Bradshaw on that last point and even extend it: Sure, Bush isn't going anywhere—he hasn't been going anywhere all year. He arrived in Colorado under hellish circumstances, his campaign reeling, his candidacy in crisis, his donors on the brink of defection. The candidate himself, who has rarely demonstrated any of the joyfulness on the trail that he promised at the start of his campaign, has lately seemed increasingly frustrated, defeatist, and even churlish—whining publicly about how he has “a lot of really cool things” he could be doing besides “being miserable, listening to people demonize me.” All eyes were upon him on Wednesday night: his supporters, his contributors, the political class, the media, and even his own staff, all watching and wondering whether he would rise to the occasion.
Not only did he not do that, he seemed to shrink from it. Asked in the opening round to name his biggest weakness, Bush seemed cranky and petulant right out of the gate: “I am by my nature impatient. And this is not an endeavor that rewards that. You gotta be patient. You gotta be—stick with it, and all that. But also, I can't fake anger.” Ooof.
But it was a now widely heralded exchange with Senator Marco Rubio that brought the debate crashing down on Bush’s head. Foolishly, Miami had telegraphed its punch days in advance: that Bush would take on his junior over his frequent absences from the Senate. But Rubio was ready, and this is what unfolded:
Everything about this exchange was devastating for Bush. Premeditated though it was, Bush delivered his attack line weakly, framing himself as “a constituent” of Rubio’s, complaining about “constituent service” rather than hammering Rubio for abrogating his elective responsibilities. The “French work week” filigree sounded nothing like Jeb (in fact, it sounded like his longtime strategist and current Right to Rise super-PAC impresario Mike Murphy) and was too clever by more than half. And once Rubio began his clearly well-rehearsed counter-punch, Jeb, apparently thinking he had already dropped the mic, was left stammering and slack-jawed—while the audience was left to draw the unavoidable conclusion that the protege was now the sensei.
From that point forward, Bush seemed gutted, pallid—a ghost rising spectrally from a car crash, looking down on the wreckage below. His tie askew, his bearing stiff, and his voice flat, he wandered aimlessly through thickets of tax policy and entitlement reform. His only memorable lines for the rest of the night were memorable in the wrong way: the doofy boasting about his fantasy football team, his suggestion that “you find a Democrat that's for cutting … spending $10, I'll give them a warm kiss.”
While the debate was still ongoing, word quickly spread through the press filing center about a confrontation between Bush campaign manager Danny Diaz and CNBC public relations czar Brian Steel, with Diaz heatedly complaining that Bush received too few questions and too little talk time. But whatever the stats show, Bush’s problem wasn’t the allocation of minutes and seconds relative to his rivals; it was his utter inability to make good use of the moments when he had the floor.
In the spin zone afterwards, Diaz tried to play down the altercation and pivot to his talking points: Bush’s candidacy is built on policy, built on his record, built to last—and he was able to demonstrate all of that on stage in Boulder. The press scrum around him struggled to suppress its incredulity. Nearby, Rubio strategist Terry Sullivan, invited to slam Jeb, simultaneously took the high road and stuck in the shiv: “There’s no need to pile on Governor Bush after his performance tonight.” #SHADE
By this morning, most Bush donors were in full panic mode, and some were already frantically searching for the life boats as they prepared to abandon ship. Throughout the conservative commentariat, there was widespread discussion of Bush’s need to quit the race; even sober, sensible, center-right types such as the Daily Callers’ Matt Lewis were offering that suggestion.
It’s possible, to be sure, that reports of Bush’s death are exaggerated, and that the Boulder debate will turn out to be, in the argot of addiction, the night when he hit bottom and rehab and recovery became possible. Bush still has ample resources supporting his candidacy—although they reside for the most part in Murphy’s hands. The race is now arguably wider open than ever, with no clear establishment front-runner—though Rubio may rapidly stake a claim to that spot if his polls numbers rise as sharply as I expect they will, and even New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is showing signs of life that were unthinkable over the summer. If Bush were to shift most of his focus to New Hampshire, a la John McCain in 2008, it's not inconceivable that he could win there—though in visits to the Granite State throughout the year, it has been difficult to locate, and not for lack of trying, voters who are enthusiastically for him.
The problem for Bush, however, isn’t just that his performance last night was atrocious; the problem is that his performance was (and struck many elites, including his supporters as) utterly and deeply revealing. The debate in Boulder presented itself as a fundamental test for Bush. What the night required of him, what everyone was watching for, was a demonstration that, despite the myriad troubles that have plagued him months, he could still be the guy: the candidate with the performance skills and the fortitude not just to survive but to thrive under pressure. That’s what the GOP is understandably looking for in its standard-bearer. That’s what it takes to win the White House.
It was, as I said, a fundamental test—and Bush failed it, badly. Whether he lacks the ability to perform at the highest level, or the will to find untapped reserves within himself, or perhaps even the requisite hunger for the presidency is a matter for his shrink to figure out. But the scale of the failure is now evident for anyone with eyes to see. Coupled with his dismal standing in the public polls nationally and in the early states, the fund-raising difficulties he now faces, and the cutbacks to his organization that have recently taken place, it's impossible to overstate the severity of the malady that now afflicts him.
Maybe, just maybe, the Jeb Bush who walked off stage last night and woke up to bedlam all around him in his world is still in possession of a pulse. But if so, it’s a faint one. On the eve of November, three months out from the first votes, the guy who entered the race looking like a juggernaut is now a wastrel in the desert, clad in rags, desperately short of food and water. And the vultures are gathering and circling overhead, preparing to pick the carcass clean.
Michael C. Bender and Kendall Breitman contributed to this report.