Conventional wisdom following the fourth Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee on Tuesday night went like this: Jeb Bush bounced back from his disastrous performance in the CNBC debate three weeks earlier. The bleeding stopped. The tourniquet was applied.
I agree. But, I also named Bush a "loser" in my after-action report on the debate, drawing the ire of Bush allies who insisted I was a moron. I just might be. But I think that misses the broader point I was trying to make.
First, the good. Bush's first answer pledging to repeal all of President Obama's executive actions was a very good one and tapped into Republican voters' anger about what they perceive as unlawful overreaches of power coming out of the White House. And throughout the debate, Bush steered questions away from comparisons between himself and other GOP candidates and toward the potential matchup between him and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Bush's strongest message — and the one he seems genuinely convinced of — is that he is the most electable candidate in the Republican field. For the first time in a debate setting, he was able to punch that message through effectively.
Now, the less good. Bush was often halting in his speech when responding to questions. He struggled to take the glut of facts stored up in his big brain and transform them into the sort of political rhetoric that works well in debates. He failed (or refused) to inject himself into several multi-candidate conversations where he had a chance to come across as the voice of reason/man with a plan in the room. His overall demeanor was more "I am getting through this thing!" than "I am winning this thing!"
And although the Bush people like to say that the most important thing is that he gets better in each debate, don't forget that voters are not thinking like that. They are scanning all of the candidates and making comparisons and contrasts. Bush doesn't simply need to be better than he was a month or two ago. He needs to show that he is on the same level — or at least within shouting range of the same level — as the likes of Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz in a debate setting. By my judgment, he didn't do that on Tuesday night.
Debates are, of course, not the only part of a campaign. There's the on-the-stump piece, the money piece and the organization piece. And, especially on those last two, Bush has clear advantages over almost all of his GOP competitors. But, debates do matter in a field as large and muddled as this one. And in a political environment in which, increasingly, even the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary are impacted by national sentiments and currents. Debates function as pinch points in the long-running campaign, moments when the political class pauses to catch its collective breath and reassess where everything stands.
For Bush, stopping the bleeding wasn't — and isn't — enough. Particularly when Rubio, his main competitor for the establishment lane in the primary, put in another strong performance. And double particularly when the candidates won't debate again until Dec. 15 — right in the middle of the Christmas season when people's attention will be elsewhere. And triple particularly when most national and early state polling suggests Bush is losing, not gaining, support.
Bush wasn't bad on Tuesday night. And compared to his performance in the CNBC debate last month, he was positively outstanding. But, good enough isn't good enough for him at this stage of the race.