Believe it or not, there once was a time when Jeb Bush was viewed as the big dog in the Republican race, so big that his handlers felt no need to affix an exclamation mark to his nickname.
Exactly one year ago, the press was replete with stories about his “shock and awe” campaign plan, his “organizational strength, fundraising prowess and blooming establishment support.” He was vacuuming “campaign talent” and building “a state-of-the-art data and digital operation.” He was a robust No. 2 in the Republican polls, well positioned for the top spot if and when Mitt Romney ducked the race.
Yet here we are, one year later, and Jeb is teetering on the edge of irrelevancy. Denizens of The Base intensely dislike him; according to Gallup, he has “the worst image of any of nine major GOP candidates, a trend that is presumably the exact opposite of what his campaign would have wanted.” Never has so much campaign money — at last count, roughly $50 million — been expended for such little return.
The Republican story du jour is that Carly Fiorina and Rand Paul have been dumped from the main stage in advance of Thursday night’s debate. That’s no surprise, given their anemic poll numbers. What’s miraculous is that Jeb hasn’t been banished as well, if only as punishment for his dizzying plummet.
Which brings me to the litany of lies he has retailed about his relationship with the NRA. Chalk this up as a woeful metaphor for his candidacy.
As we all know, an aspiring Republican nominee is DOA unless he or she can viscerally bond with the gun lovers. Jeb earned an A rating with the NRA back when he was governor of Florida — he signed a batch of gun-loving measures, including the notorious “stand your ground” provision that worked wonders for George Zimmerman — but Jeb seemed to realize that his rating wasn’t good enough for The Base.
He’s stuck with his establishment pedigree, and The Base hates the Republican establishment. He’s bankrolled by the usual Republican donors, and The Base hates the donor class. He’s tethered to the Bush brand, and The Base is loath to back a third Bush. (Bush I broke his promise not to raise taxes; Bush II made the government bigger and signed every Republican Congress spending bill.) Plus, Jeb talks like a semi-articulate policy wonk, not like an everyday guy.
So clearly, Jeb felt the need to amp up his red-blooded gun creds, to say something that would grab The Base by the lapels. It went like something like this:
In Iowa last July, he said, “During my tenure as governor, I won the NRA’s Statesman of the Year Award.”
In Iowa last October, he said, “On my highlight reel was winning the Statesman of the Year Award from the NRA.”
On his Twitter feed, he wrote, “As former NRA Statesman of the Year, I will fight to protect the Second Amendment.”
In South Carolina last October, he said that “when I was governor, I was the NRA Statesman of the Year. One year it was on my highlight reel where Charlton Heston gave me a gun on the stage in front of 15,000 people. That was pretty cool, to be honest with you.”
At a New Hampshire town hall meeting in December, he said, “You know who you’re looking at here? You’re looking at the guy who won the NRA Statesman of the Year Award. Not the Florida award, the national award.” (At least four times in New Hampshire, he has reportedly touted his Statesman of the Year Award.)
On Fox News Sunday nine days ago, he said, “I was Statesman of the Year of the NRA. I received an award from Charlton Heston about 10 years ago.”
Pretty cool, huh? Only one problem:
There is no such thing as an NRA Statesman of the Year Award.
He didn’t get this award from NRA President Charlton Heston, because this award doesn’t exist. He did receive a ceremonial rifle back in 2003, when the NRA held its annual meeting in Florida, but he didn’t get it from Heston. (The ex-actor was ailing and absent). We know all this because, last week, BuzzFeed busted Jeb so badly that Jeb’s handlers agreed to scrub Jeb’s tweet and to erase a Facebook post that boasted about the nonexistent award. Their mea culpa spin: “Jeb was mistaken and conflated multiple events unintentionally.”
Perhaps, if we want to be charitable, this can be chalked up as a Brian Williams thing. But what it really shows is the guy’s increasingly desperate desire to connect with the kind of voters who have relegated him to 4 percent in the latest New Hampshire poll — and 3 percent in the latest Iowa poll.
It’s a tad too facile to say that Jeb is the wrong kind of candidate in an anti-establishment year, because others in his general category (Kasich, Christie, Rubio) are scoring higher in New Hampshire. But perhaps Gallup is right when it attributes Jeb’s plummet to his uniquely wrong creds: “No candidate is probably more strongly linked to the party establishment and the past than Bush.”
When Jeb was asked the other day to explain why The Base dislikes him so much, why his negatives are the highest of any Republican candidate, he replied: “Hell if I know, I don’t really care.” With the clock ticking, he oughta.