Reality Check: Jeb Can't Fix It

Bob Dole ran for president each time the job was open – in 1996, 1988, and 1980, and for vice president in 1976, forty years ago.  He always lost.  Honored for his heroic service in World War II, Dole two months ago – notably on Veterans Day – endorsed Jeb Bush.  It had as much effect on the race as George Pataki's withdrawal.

And last month, Dole said he would not vote for Donald Trump or Ted Cruz against Hillary – and further, ever gracious toward Democrats, said that Barack Obama is "a very good man."  Dole's conduct thus explains Jeb, who represents the status quo of the Old Guard and the crony capitalism of the Chamber of Commerce.  As Rush Limbaugh once explained: "Jeb is a placeholder for all the people who want to return to power in Washington with him as the candidate getting them there."

Thus, insider Dole's endorsement was a negative for Jeb.  And Republican voters surely do not consider Obama a nice guy, but rather the most divisive president in memory.

A week before Dole's endorsement, the Bush campaign unveiled a new slogan: "Jeb can fix it" – less a comment on national policy than a metaphorical confession of the campaign's failure.  There never was a plausible rationale for Jeb's candidacy, no thoughtful narrative.  He was a good governor, but his two terms ended before Obama became president.  If he even considered succeeding Obama, he had years to assume a high, or at least higher, profile.  Instead, he waited on the sidelines until last year, when it seemed as if his mother imprudently authorized his candidacy.  He coalesced mega-wealthy bundlers who had raised the big money for Bush 41 and Bush 43.

Talk radio host Laura Ingraham rejected "the idea that we should hold a coronation because 50 rich families decided who best represents their interests."  But these super-rich believed, as did gullible political journalists, that money guaranteed Jeb's staying power as the last man standing.  (One Jeb mega-donor who last year told me Jeb was the inevitable nominee and I was "too negative" now incorrectly blames Jeb's collapse on Donald Trump.  The donor class quite literally passes the buck for their stupidity.)

From this campaign's outset, Jeb properly announced he would be his own man, and avoiding his last name, the campaign branded itself "Jeb! [exclamation point!]."  Yet he immediately and inexplicably surrounded himself with cronies like his father's secretary of state, Jim Baker.  And he would often talk about "my dad…the greatest man alive" (inviting unflattering comparisons with the father) and "my brother who kept us safe" (raising the matter of W's ignoring warnings of a possible 9-11).

As for his own persona, Jeb seemed weak and tentative, almost apathetic.  At times one wondered – did he want to be here?  Physically, his correctible posture was off, and remediation, as well as development of Jeb's persona, eluded his Beltway consultants in a sloppy campaign that assumed the candidate was incidental to raising money as an end in itself.  With inadequate preparation, Jeb was on autopilot for collapse: he could hardly respond to easily anticipated obvious questions, starting with the Iraq War.  He used awkward, even archaic expressions and misspoke often.  His unprofessional campaign aides leaked their disappointment and also boasted when the campaign hired a debate coach.  It reminded me of newspaper articles in which Scott Walker's aide said their campaign needed to "make Scott look smarter" and a Ben Carson aide who spoke about how "uninformed" Carson was.

"If this election is about how we're going to fight to get nothing done, I don't want any part of it," Jeb said in a telling, memorable reaction after his polling numbers dropped precipitously, and he seemed even more like a reluctant candidate ready to throw in the towel.  "I don't want to be elected president to sit around and see gridlock.  I've got a lot of really cool things I could do other than sit around, being miserable, listening to people demonize me and me feeling compelled to demonize them.  That is a joke.  Elect Trump if you want that."

Jeb is a nice guy.  Decency is in the Bush DNA.  And Jeb is a serious man who has many qualities that are presidential in the classic sense.  But Trump's "low energy" attack was devastating, and Trump hit a raw nerve when he suggested Jeb's good feelings toward his one-time protégé Marco Rubio were contrived and hypocritical.

Jeb proved Trump prescient when in a debate Jeb clumsily attacked the glib and prepared Rubio, who then won the round.  Jeb's super-PAC ads cut up Marco Rubio, as if Jeb, running poorly in earlier primaries, would still be viable by the March 15 Florida primary.  Perhaps Jeb's backers want to stop any momentum now for Rubio.  But that tactic has been helping Ted Cruz, not benefiting Jeb.

A Jeb scorched-earth ad campaign against others will move votes around, not gain votes for Jeb.  As of now, Cruz could win Iowa, come in second in New Hampshire, and then win in South Carolina.  If Trump wins Iowa, he could win all three.  The Bush family does not like Cruz, but Jeb likely still prefers Cruz as the nominee over the two candidates – Trump and Rubio – who have humiliated him.

As Jeb's campaign faltered, he improbably complained that he "hated" being frontrunner: "I feel much better in the back of the pack."  The problem is not where Jeb is, but that he has been in free fall, and for profound reasons.

Last week, Mitt Romney informed us that he told Jeb a year ago, "I think it's very hard for you … to separate yourself from the difficulty of the W years and compare them with the Clinton years."  Romney felt that Jeb "was unfairly but severely [a favorite Romney word] burdened by the W years."  Of course, Romney assumes a general election.  But Bush fatigue starts among Republicans.  That's why, even if the convention in Cleveland went beyond the first ballot (in theory, an opportunity for Jeb), the delegates – then no longer legally bound to any candidate – would hardly turn to Jeb, no matter how many ballots.  Change the convention rules, and Mitt Romney would have a better chance.

Rick Perry and Scott Walker showed integrity and class in ending their candidacies early, despite their well-funded super-PACs.  Jeb's Right to Rise super-PAC raised much more – over $100 million, much of it gone already in old-style television ads, as if cable news, talk radio and Facebook, Twitter, the internet, and YouTube did not exist.  Because high-propensity primary voters have formed impressions based on watching the candidates in interviews and debates, television ads are less likely than ever to move votes.

Right to Rise has competent talent, but most of its ads lack real people or original footage, relying more on existing or stock footage, or computer graphics, and with confusing or wrong messages.  For example, one Jeb ad showed Trump saying, "Let Syria and ISIS fight it out," actually a positive for Trump.  Bigger ad buys for Jeb, the lower his polling numbers.  One Right to Rise ad effectively compares Trump to Clinton, but it will not get votes for Jeb.  And in Iowa, the first primary state, Right to Rise has billboards ("Donald Trump is unhinged" –Jeb Bush) that solidify Trump's vote.

The Bushes are not quitters.  But unless Jeb unexpectedly "wins" decisively (hardly likely) in the sixth debate this Thursday in Charleston, it's time for Jeb to end his campaign.

If Jeb drops out, he will no longer be a debate prop for Trump.  His departure will not help any particular candidate, but the "W" presidency will be less discussed, and that's good for November.  Besides, Jeb's staffers were more into the easy fantasy of a presidential campaign than the tough reality of working personally with their candidate.  Now they can become a CNN or Fox talking-head "Republican strategist," for which the qualification usually is losing at least three major campaigns in a row.

Jeb's Right to Rise super-PAC can give the remaining $50 million or so back to donors, or ask their permission for others to deploy the money for races for governor, U.S. senator, or member of Congress, or perhaps for an original artsy television campaign against Hillary.

Why should Jeb drop out?  After all, he and Christie are both at 4 percent, followed closely by Ron Paul, 3 percent, and Fiorina and Kasich, each at 2 percent.  There are three reasons: (a) Jeb is the only candidate whose numbers have gone steadily down, although (b) Jeb has spent far more than any other candidate, and (c) as I've argued for more than six months, despite his massive ID, Jeb has no path to win the nomination.

If you experience technical problems, please write to