Soon after Wednesday night’s Republican debate, the phone rang: “Did the fat lady sing?” asked the voice on the other end.
“Probably,” I said.
Meaning, it is probably over for Jeb Bush.
The erstwhile front-runner had performed weakly, which was compounded by his recent promise to shed his Mr. Nice Guy persona. Instead, he seemed awkward and flimsy as he lashed out at former protégé Marco Rubio for having missed dozens of Senate votes in his pursuit of the presidency.
The attack was predictable, given that earlier in the day south Florida’s Sun Sentinel had made a splash by calling for Rubio’s Senate resignation.
Rubio has openly expressed his dislike of the Senate, saying it moves too slowly. But he was also badly bruised when his attempt at immigration reform was denounced by his Senate colleagues and by Republicans generally. Now, even Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is calling for his resignation.
While this may be a worthy discussion — at what point are missed votes a firing offense? — Bush’s jab boomeranged. Just minutes after he had identified his central weakness as not being able to “fake anger,” Bush attempted to fake anger — or at least disgust. In an odd little flourish, he tossed a little leftover red meat to the fragment of the GOP base that still hates all things French.
“The Senate,” he said, “what is it — like a French workweek? You get like three days where you have to show up?”
Like, not really. Although France officially has a 35-hour workweek, French Ambassador Gérard Araud tweeted, “The French work an average of 39.6 hours a week compared to 39.2 for the Germans.” And Fortune magazine reports that French workers are about as productive as Americans.
No “fact” goes unchecked these days.
Though not exactly crucial to the global flow of things, this speck of a moment was nonetheless revealing. Bush’s snark attack obviously wasn’t spontaneous and came across like a committee-produced “laugh line.” Someone apparently forgot to cue the audience and it collapsed like a Roquefort souffle.
In responses to Bush and to a moderator, Rubio parried that other senators, including John McCain, John Kerry and Barack Obama, had missed votes when they ran for president. Rubio said Bush was only complaining now because “someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.”
Well, that’s true enough.
Rubio’s remark earned applause from the crowd, whereupon Bush retorted:
I couldn’t agree more that you’re just like Barack Obama. Thanks for saving me the trouble of pointing that out. But you’re nothing like McCain or even Kerry, who, unlike you, have portfolios of achievements from decades of public service.
Okay, no he didn’t. Bush just stood there like a limp suit on a coat hanger.
Did his handlers forget to tell him what to say next? Or is the problem that Bush isn’t that guy. He’s not a fighter. He probably doesn’t want to tangle with the kid he helped along. His kind of people don’t do that sort of thing.
While donors and consultants try to assess the damage of a third lackluster performance, we should all be concerned that substance has forever been conquered by style. John Kasich hinted at this when he said he feared that Republicans might actually nominate or elect someone who can’t do the job.
In today’s theater of bloviating showmen, viral sound bites and platitudes passing as policy, people like Bush who prefer experience and a more thoughtful approach to complex issues will never be appreciated. He’s a Charlie Rose kind of guy trapped in a Donald Trump reality show — miscast in a movie he would have no interest in seeing.
In the midst of a primary race animated by populist anger and anti-establishment sentiment, Bush’s recipe for joyousness and love seems Pollyanna-ish and out of sync with the people and the times. It is painful to imagine how he would fare in a matchup with Hillary Clinton, whose mop closet is stuffed with mightier foes.
By contrast, Rubio is Clinton’s most worrisome potential opponent. The charming, handsome, Spanish-speaking son of Cuban immigrants, he’s quick on his feet and articulate in his delivery, and would provide a stark generational contrast to Clinton. Whatever baggage he has would be a wheeled carry-on to Clinton’s collection of steamer trunks. All he needs is money — lots of it.
The fat lady may have just been warming up her pipes, but the donor class is listening closely.