I’ve read at least three variations on this story over the past few days and I’m still mystified. Donors are disappointed, strategists are baffled — everyone expected so much more from Bush 3.0.
What did they expect? I’m asking earnestly. Somewhere there’s a PowerPoint from December sitting on Jeb’s laptop with projected polling for June 2015. What do those polls say?
The airport huddles were just one sign among many of a political operation going off course — disjointed in message and approach, torn between factions and more haphazard than it appeared on the surface. Bush’s first six months as an all-but-declared candidate have been defined by a series of miscalculations, leaving his standing considerably diminished ahead of his formal entry into the race on Monday.
In interviews this week, dozens of Bush backers and informed Republicans — most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to comment candidly — described an overly optimistic, even haughty exploratory operation. Strategic errors were exacerbated by unexpected stumbles by the would-be candidate and internal strife within his team, culminating in a staff shake-up this week…
On the stump, Bush has stuck to his pledge not to shift to the right to win the nomination, but his middle-of-the-road positions on immigration and education have come off more as out of step with the base of his party than shrewdly pragmatic. His wonky question-and-answer exchanges with voters sometimes resemble college lectures rather than a disarming appeal for votes…
“We’ve learned that the prospect of a big financial advantage is not going to keep people out of the race and that the notion of a new face is stronger than we might have thought,” Vin Weber, an outside Bush adviser, said in an interview. “That requires modest adjustments in strategy, not wholesale changes.”
The stench of rationalization in all that is overpowering, as though Team Jeb and its allies are prepared to plead guilty to any charge so long as they don’t have to acknowledge that maybe a guy named “Bush” can’t get nominated in the GOP anymore. Matt Lewis argues correctly that Jeb’s strategy six months ago was based on two things — one, raising so much dough that other top-flight contenders might be scared away from running, and two, running an ostentatiously centrist campaign in the primaries so that he wouldn’t be forced to defend unpopular right-wing positions in the general election. The first part was always doomed to limited success, though. He succeeded in keeping Romney out, even though Romney never showed any real intention of running until Jeb jumped in and offended him by aggressively recruiting his donors, and it was reasonable to expect that Rubio might be cowed out of running. But young governors like Scott Walker and Chris Christie were always going to run and challenge Bush for the center-right. And while you can laugh off Christie if you like, Walker was and remains a top-tier contender, perfectly positioned to capitalize on “anyone but Bush” sentiment. There was no reason to think Bush would have a commanding lead over him. And there was really no reason to think, in the age of Super PACs, that other candidates would be scared of a big war chest. Rubio’s running in no small part because a single enthusiastic billionaire, Norman Braman, seems willing and able to singlehandedly ensure that he stays competitive with Jeb in fundraising.
All of this should have been foreseeable by political pros. It was, in fact, foreseen by Marco Rubio and his team or else they wouldn’t have bothered challenging Jeb given his lock on most of Florida’s big-name GOP political talent. Combine the risk of Rubio running with the certainty of Bush fatigue among parts of the GOP electorate with Jeb’s refusal to pander to the right with the fact that the field is unusually strong and unusually large even without Rubio and you’ve got a recipe for — well, for what we’re seeing now, a jumble of names with the top-tier candidates all stuck at around 10-15 percent. The weird thing isn’t that Team Jeb expects him to win, or even to win handily — only a fool bets against the GOP establishment in a national primary — it’s that, if these stories about his campaign going “off course” are accurate (which his spokesman denies), they seem to have expected him to go wire-to-wire. He was going to bounce out to a lead early by dint of name recognition, emerge quickly as the center’s champion when the rest of the field’s moderates dropped out in respect for his fundraising, and then hold off Walker in a de facto two-man race for the nomination. And all of that was going to happen despite the fact that even Bush-lovers recognize that his name is a huge liability in the general election, that the base will fight him tooth and nail, and that nominating him will cede any advantage the party might otherwise have thanks to Hillary Clinton’s age and dynastic baggage. Unless Team Jeb thought he’d be a dynamo on the stump, which is hard to believe after he spent a week walking into rhetorical doorknobs on Iraq, there was no reason to think this race would have been anything close to easy.