The third Republican debate: Jeb Bush’s ticking clock

     Marco Rubio, right, and Jeb Bush, argue a point during the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015, in Boulder, Colo. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

    Marco Rubio, right, and Jeb Bush, argue a point during the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015, in Boulder, Colo. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

    That gurgling noise you just heard might well be Jeb Bush circling the drain.

    The big story on the eve of the third Republican debate was whether Jeb — or Jeb!, as his beleaguered marketers prefer us to call him — could calm the party establishment’s jitters and finally command the stage with shock and awe. But since we know by now that the Bush family’s heir to the throne has less pizzazz than a glass of prune juice, it was no surprise that he tanked yet again.

    Jeb was supposed to bring traditional Republican stability to this race; his disappearing act could blow it wide open. His big-buck donors are freaking, and the clock is ticking.

    Indeed, it’s a sign of serious trouble when a Republican candidate’s fundraising friends feel compelled to diss the candidate, behind a cloak of anonymity, to the hated mainstream media. But that’s what happened, days before the latest debate, when this blind quote surfaced in The Washington Post: “It feels very much like a death spiral, and it breaks my heart.” And it’s a sign of serious trouble when the candidate himself starts hinting in public that perhaps he’s too good for the rough and tumble of today’s politics, that he has “really cool things” he might prefer to pursue.

    His worst moment last night was his confrontation with fellow Floridian Marco Rubio. It was as if a torch was being passed to a new generation, the mentor ceding the field to his former protege. They’ve been fighting lately for the same market niche, each seeking to become the establishment alternative to Ben Carson and Donald Trump. Each needs the other to get out of the way.

    The problem for Jeb is he’s a lousy debator, clumsy on his feet; Rubio is a deft performer, perhaps too slick by half, but light on his feet.

    Everyone knew Jeb would try to exhibit command by taking Rubio down. And, on paper, he seemed to have some ammo. Rubio has been grousing lately about his life in the U. S. Senate  — “I don’t know that ‘hate’ is the right word. I’m frustrated” — and says that he’s fine with missing a lot of votes because he’s leaving the chamber anyway. And when that topic came up during last night’s debate, Jeb jumped in:

    “Could I — could I bring something up here, because I’m a constituent of the senator, and I helped him, and I expected that he would do constituent service, which means that he shows up to work …. He’s a gifted politician. But, Marco, when you signed up for this, this was a six-year term, and you should be showing up to work. I mean, literally, the Senate — what is it, like a French work week? You get, like, three days where you have to show up? You can campaign, or just resign and let someone else take the job. There are a lot of people living paycheck to paycheck in Florida as well. They’re looking for a senator that will fight for them each and every day.”

    By the way, that line about “a French work week” … Jeb’s strategists, knowing that the word French is red meat for the conservative base, clearly crafted that alleged zinger way in advance. And Jeb is so awkward and stilted that when he delivered the line, it sounded like a strategist talking point. He led with his chin, and Rubio proceeded to deck him:

    “Well, it’s interesting. Over the last few weeks, I’ve listened to Jeb as he walked around the country and said that you’re modeling your campaign after John McCain, that you’re going to launch a furious comeback the way he did, by fighting hard in New Hampshire and places like that, carrying your own bag at the airport. You know how many votes John McCain missed when he was carrying out that furious comeback that you’re now modeling after? …. I don’t remember you ever complaining about John McCain’s vote record. The only reason why you’re doing it now is because we’re running for the same position, and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.”

    For the record, Rubio has missed 47 percent of the Senate’s votes; when McCain ran for president in ’07 and ’08, he missed 63 percent.

    By this point in the confrontation, Jeb was sputtering (“Well, I’ve been — “). Rubio cut him off and took the high road:

    “Here’s the bottom line. My campaign is going to be about the future of America. It’s not going to be about attacking anyone else on this stage. I will continue to have tremendous admiration and respect for Governor Bush. I’m not running against Governor Bush. I’m not running against anyone on this stage. I’m running for president, because there is no way we can elect Hillary Clinton to continue the policies of Barack Obama.”

    That’s when Ari Fleischer, press secretary for Jeb’s brother back in the day, promptly tweeted, “Mistake going after Rubio.” Yeah, no kidding.

    Jeb was barely a factor after Rubio’s smackdown. He did boast at one point that he cut tax revenues by $19 million during his tenure as Florida governor, but that’s a fraudulent stat; truth is, a lot of those revenue cuts happened when Washington phased out the federal estate tax credit. He insisted at another point that “we need a unifier, not a cynical divider-in-chief,” but that made me wonder why this guy can’t come up with own lines. Because it was his failed brother who promised, “we need a united, not a divider.”

    On his way out the door last night, Jeb defended himself to reporters by insisting that a candidate need not be good at stagecraft: “It’s not a performance. I’m running for president of the United States.” Is he kidding? Did Jeb somehow forget that his party’s preeminent idol, Ronald Reagan, was the Jedi master of stagecraft and performance? Has Jeb ever heard Bill Clinton? Or Barack Obama? Or Franklin D. Roosevelt? Is he familiar with Theodore Roosevelt, the performance artist whose tenure dovetailed with the dawn of the moving picture era?

    A good performer is a good communicator; those talents are interwined. Debates aside, Jeb’s core problem is that he’s a bad communicator. It took him four days to figure out how he felt about his brother’s Iraq disaster. It took him several days to clarify/explain what he’d meant when he said that “people need to work longer hours.” It took him a while to clarify/explain that he hadn’t meant to shrug off the Oregon college shootings when he said “Stuff happens.” A mountain of $100,000 checks for his super PAC can’t make up for a guy who can’t inarticulate.

    But anyway, last night could’ve been worse last night. At least he didn’t repeat his recent remark that the new Supergirl is “pretty hot.” A 62-year-old patrician trying to play Regular Guy by lusting after a woman 35 years his junior? Eww. That ticking clock on his candidacy might’ve stopped.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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