When they write the 2016 campaign books, the Poor Jeb chapter will inevitably be set in Boulder, the site of the third GOP debate. This was where he was supposed to rescue his presidential run. It was where he would come out swinging and, with any luck, knock out that ungrateful twerp, Marco Rubio, his former mentee now trying to ruin his life. Or was it the Donald who was ruining his life?
It was one or the other, or maybe both. But Jeb had already tried to unload on Trump, and that hadn’t worked out so well. Jeb has admitted he can’t fake outrage very well, which is an essential talent for anyone considering a run in a GOP presidential primary. The Donald, meanwhile, majored in outrage of all descriptions. It would be a mismatch every time.
So Jeb would go after Rubio, who owed him, and tie up the establishment vote – such as it is – and reestablish himself as the inevitable candidate once the Donald and the Ben fade away or, better yet, just disappear.
He needed something. His campaign was a disaster, his poll numbers tanking, his money running low, his donors running scared. And to make matters worse, he had embarrassed himself over the weekend at a retreat by whining about how he had cooler things to do than run for president and that if people didn’t like it, they should just vote for the Donald. Not cool.
And so he needed a good debate. He would find his swagger. He would work on his sneer. When he and Rubio met on the stage, they would barely look at each other. They wouldn’t shake hands. It was the intra-Florida showdown playing out half a continent away.
And at the first opportunity, Jeb would take his shot, demanding to know why Rubio had missed so many votes as his senator. To say it was awkward is to say that three Bushes in the White House are at least one too many.
“Because I am a constituent of the senator and I helped him … I expected that he would do constituent service,” Bush said, “which means that he shows up to work.”
Was he outraged? Well, he didn’t just attack Rubio. He attacked … France. Yes. The coup de grace.
“The Senate, what is it like a French work week? You get, like, three days where you have to show up?” Bush said to Rubio, whom he called Marco, because, well, swagger. “You can campaign or just resign and let someone else take the job,” Bush said.
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel had called for Rubio to resign. Wasn’t there a trend here?
But who knew that Rubio would duck the punch and land a hard right to Jeb’s nose? Well, everyone knew, except Jeb. This was the moment Rubio was waiting for. He had practiced, too, and he doesn’t even need the practice. Bush had been talking about the absences — a phony attack if ever there was one — for days. He warned people about Rubio as the GOP version of Obama — young and bright, but untested.
But if this was a test, Rubio aced it.
“Over the last few weeks, I’ve listened to Jeb as he has campaigned across the country and he said he was modeling his campaign after John McCain,” Rubio said. “You know how many votes John McCain lost when he was carrying out that furious comeback that you’re now modeling under?
“I don’t remember you ever complaining about John McCain’s vote record, and the only reason you’re complaining about mine is because somebody … has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.”
Bush tried to counter, but Rubio talked right over him. Rubio is young and talented and untested and apparently unable to balance a checkbook. But he knows his low-energy man. They worked together when Bush was governor and Rubio was speaker of the Florida House.
Rubio had already set the tone for the debate by attacking the media, which would become the theme of the night – that and putting the tax code on either the front of a postcard or the inside cover of a pack of matches. The guys at CNBC could fight back, which is more than Bush could say.
Well, so much happened it’s hard to know where to start. It didn’t make any sense that Republicans would come to Boulder to debate, but they did, and when they did, the ground shifted. And I’m pretty sure it had nothing to do with fracking.
It was Rubio as unanimous pick as winner of the debate. He was already the favorite of the betting markets. If you haven’t bought Rubio stock, now may be the time.
It was Ted Cruz making the case that if you’re going to vote for an obnoxious, anti-establishment loud mouth, it might as well be him.
It was Carson, leading the field in Iowa and beating Trump in a national New York Times poll, showing once again that he has no idea about, or any apparent interest in, anything to do with economic policy. He had nothing to say, but he said it quietly, which is apparently enough to keep him near the top of the polls.
It was the Donald in subdued tones, at least by Trumpian standards.
It was CNBC moderators taking the fight to the candidates and usually losing.
But mostly it was Poor Jeb, who would be happy to know, at least, that there are many cool things to do in Boulder.
Photo credit: DonkeyHotey, Creative Commons, Flickr.