A month ago, Jeb Bush’s campaign gave a presentation to potential donors warning that Marco Rubio was “a risky bet” in an attempt to push potential support away from Bush’s former protegé. They hinted that Mitt Romney’s campaign had vetted him for a potential spot on the ticket and had been scared off from offering it. That brought a quick and pointed denial from Beth Myers, the woman who had headed up the VP search, even though Myers is on record supporting Bush rather than Rubio. “We found nothing that disqualified him from serving as VP,” Myers said in a statement, adding that “the Bush aide referred to in this article is simply wrong.”
As if that last-ditch attempt to sling mud hadn’t backfired enough, McKay Coppins reveals that this has been a months-long effort to hit Rubio with a so-called “zipper problem” that has singularly flopped. In a lengthy excerpt from Coppins’ upcoming book The Wilderness, Buzzfeed unveils how desperate Team Jeb was to kneecap Rubio, and how widespread the effort was:
Eventually, word got back to the senator’s camp that Jeb’s close allies in Florida were working to revive the “zipper problem” meme in a last-ditch effort to freeze Rubio out of the race; they were circulating the rumors anew among donors and politicos and cautioning them to exercise due diligence before signing on with his campaign. From the scraps of intel Rubio’s team was getting from donors, it was difficult to tell how widespread or organized the whisper campaign might be, but some on Rubio’s staff believed they’d identified at least two of the culprits. The first was Ann Herberger, a Miami-based political fundraiser now on Jeb’s payroll whom Rubio had axed from his Senate campaign for failing to bring in donors. “Marco fired her and now she’s bitter,” a Rubio strategist told me.
The second culprit they’d identified was Ana Navarro. Few people inspired more acrimony among Rubio’s aides these days than the First Lady of the Biltmore, who they regarded as a flighty and spiteful socialite masquerading as a political strategist for TV. They resented how she had allowed reporters to quote her as a “confidante” or “adviser” to Rubio for years, only to bolt to Jeb the second he decided to run for president. They now regularly heard about her dissing Rubio to the important power brokers and politicos who filtered in and out of her boyfriend’s hotel, and at least one of the senator’s advisers was convinced that she was fanning the infidelity rumors. “That woman couldn’t say nice things about her mother,” said the adviser. “She’s just gonna say acerbic things for the sake of saying them.” (Both Herberger and Navarro denied spreading rumors about Rubio.)
That looks bad, but their failure to hit Rubio with any mud looks even more pathetic:
Meanwhile, in a series of off-the-record conversations, Jeb’s messengers tried to convince a number of influential figures in political media that they had the goods on Rubio. Among these was MSNBC host Joe Scarborough. A former Republican congressman from Florida who remained tapped into the state’s politics, Scarborough was skeptical whenever somebody tried to convince him that Rubio had an explosive career-ending secret lurking in his past. “Everybody who runs against him says he has girlfriends, or financial problems. They throw a lot of shit at the wall,” Scarborough told me. “It’s the same thing from the Jeb Bush camp. They keep telling me, ‘Oh, we’ve got the thing that’s going to take him down.’ But nobody’s ever produced anything that we all haven’t read in the Tallahassee Democrat.”
In fact, this might backfire even worse than Bush’s fumbled attack line on Rubio in an October debate:
To many in Rubio’s orbit, the most maddening part of the unkillable zipper meme was not the thousands of dollars they’d already spent trying to debunk it, or even the fact that Jeb’s people seemed so dead set against a competitive primary that they’d resorted to shameless gossip-mongering: It was the double standard at work. After all, Jeb had faced his own rumors of adultery in his day. In one of the more enduringly bizarre episodes of his governorship, a reporter had confronted him at a bill-signing ceremony about rumors that he was having an affair with a former model who had worked closely with his administration. Jeb had indignantly, and emotionally, denied the “hurtful” gossip, but the incident gave a Vanity Fair writer who profiled him shortly thereafter license to detail the other unsubstantiated Jeb rumors swirling around Tallahassee. And yet no one in the GOP establishment seemed to be wringing their hands over Jeb’s “zipper problem.”
Well, politics ain’t beanbag, and this won’t be the last time a campaign tries to spread personal dirt regardless of whether it actually exists. It won’t be the last time a double standard gets applied, either, nor the last time a political ally pats another on the back in an effort to find a place to stick the knife. But it may be a singular moment in the lack of skill used and the extent of failure achieved. It might even extend some sympathy toward Rubio from those who despise the GOP establishment — but if so, it probably won’t last long.
Update: Through a publicist, Bush campaign spokesman Tim Miller denies this story:
“Our campaign has never said anything of this nature and doesn’t believe it. The candidates will be graded on their records both in the private sector and public office, as well as their plans for the future.”