Put a fork in him: Jeb Bush is done. And the death blow was dealt by the man once considered his protégé, the junior Senator from his home state, Marco Rubio. As I wrote last week, Rubio is blessed with raw political talent. He’s authentic, tough when he has to be, yet ultimately positive and forward-thinking. During the latest Republican debate, his savvy was no doubt on full display.
In an exchange that felt forced, Bush attempted to call Rubio out for his Senate absenteeism. “Marco, when you signed up for this, this was a six-year term, and you should be showing up to work,” scolded Jeb. “The Senate, what is it? Like a French workweek? You get three days when you have to show up,” said Bush, attempting to land a blow but coming across as both vindictive and nervous. You could cut the tension of the moment with a knife.
“I don’t remember you ever complaining about John McCain’s vote record,” replied a cool-headed Rubio, referencing the fact that McCain, who was fully supported by Bush, missed more votes than he has during his presidential candidacy.
“The only reason you’re doing it now is because we’re running for the same position and someone has convinced you that it’s going to help you,” said Rubio, laying bare what was already obvious: That Bush’s consultants told him to go for Rubio’s throat, he followed through, but it felt grossly inauthentic – and everybody, Bush included, knew it.
“My campaign is going to be about the future of America; it’s not going to be about attacking anyone else on the stage,” concluded Rubio, adding that he continues to have tremendous respect for Bush – ending the exchange on the type of positive note that captures Rubio’s style.
For Bush, there was no coming back from that moment. He behaved like the wounded man he was, incapable of exhibiting the commanding leadership voters seek in a president. Rubio spoke with the authority Bush’s bundlers always hoped the Serious Man with his Serious Record would exude; yet Jeb! has consistently missed the mark.
As Politico reported in the wake of the debate, many of his biggest supporters are frustrated.
Explained one of Bush’s donors: “Going after Rubio that way was just a mistake. No one cares about missed f–king votes in the Senate. Washington cares about that. The media cares about that. And losing candidates care about that. Jeb sounded like he was losing. And Marco made him pay.” Another irked Bush supporter said, “Marco is a [expletive] Jedi master. Hopefully these idiots learn not to [expletive] with him anymore. Not necessary.”
While Rubio had what was arguably the night’s best overall performance, Ted Cruz had a major breakout moment himself. A moment that, particularly to many people familiar with his Senate campaign, was an introduction to a more authentic Ted; a contrast to the canned and calculated version that voters who only know him through his presidential run have been subjected to.
In a statement that prolific pollster Frank Luntz said scored the highest out of any he’s ever seen in the countless focus groups he’s run, Cruz called out CNBC’s moderators for obvious bias in a brilliant fashion that resonated with the GOP base. One by one, he recited each loaded question the moderators had asked the candidates, in order, and pointed out how the bias was obvious.
“The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” said Cruz. He then went on to contrast CNBC’s loaded questions with what he described as “fawning” inquiries made to the Democratic candidates in their recent debate hosted by CNN. He then said, to laughs from the audience, that the Democratic debate looked as though it was an exchange “between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.”
While Rubio and Cruz performed the best, other candidates had moments in the sun as well. Carly Fiorina, who has been roundly praised for her past debate performances, had some good one-liners, but didn’t stand out as much as she needs to in order to be a sustainable frontrunner. She remains a sharp messenger, who deployed what I considered to be a perfect explanation of how big government and big corporations work together at the expense of small businesses and the middle class.
“Crony capitalism is what happens when government gets so big and so powerful that only the big and the powerful can handle it,” explained Fiorina. “When government gets big and powerful, the big feel like they need to get even bigger to deal with all that power, and meanwhile, the small and the powerless — in this case, 1,590 community banks — go out of business,” she added, aptly demonstrating how government creates problems then attempts to “solve them,” leading to the type of socialism that tanks economies.
Ultimately, despite her talents, it’s difficult to make the case for Carly as Commander in Chief. It increasingly seems as though she’s running for Vice President, which might just be the ideal slot for her. With a gifted female communicator like Carly on the ticket, Republicans will be able to better weather some of the inevitable “War on Women” attacks Hillary will ultimately use against the eventual nominee.
Rand Paul, the resident libertarian Republican, had a good moment when he explained how the Federal Reserve exacerbates the income inequality Democrats claim to oppose so strongly. But he was given the least amount of time, didn’t jump in during moments he could have landed a blow, and simply continues to struggle in debate settings. Rand, whom I admire greatly, is cerebral. He performs better on the Senate floor, filibustering budget deals and surveillance schemes, than he does in settings conducive to soundbites.
Christie and Kasich both played the role of Governors with tangible records to run on who aren’t Jeb Bush, and Christie’s personality shined. But neither seem to be gaining traction with voters. People looking for Washington outsiders still appear to be more fascinated with Trump and Carson than the governors, while Cruz, Rubio, and Paul all make good choices too, given their tea party election pedigrees.
As for Trump, he seems to have calmed down somewhat underneath the waning glow of his fading star. Carson is now beating him in Iowa and even in some national polls, and the case for Trump is increasingly difficult to make as undecided voters start looking for more substance. This is why I ultimately think Carson, who offers little in the way of policy knowledge, will fade too, with voters turning to the two men I believe will come to lead the field: Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
It’s too early to know for certain, but both Rubio and Cruz seem to be peaking at the right time. Cruz arguably has a stronger ground game than Rubio, but Rubio is better suited to become the establishment’s compromise choice. After all, recent reports show that President Bush, whom Ted worked for nearly two decades ago, isn’t a particularly big fan of him.
Ultimately, Cruz will lead with hardcore grassroots voters, and he’s counting on earning the support of those who have flirted with Trump and Carson. But the establishment tends to prevail to at least some extent, and Rubio, as I noted recently, is the perfect stealth-establishment, consensus candidate.
Expect the ultimate battle to be between Rubio and Cruz – which will be fascinating seeing as they’re both first term Senators. That certainly takes the wind out of the Republican refrain of old about Obama’s inexperience. But today’s political climate simply isn’t favorable to the Old Guard; a large part of why this debate marked the end of the Bush dynasty.