Jeb’s Hollow Triumph

So Jebbie’s long-awaited Q&A session at CPAC has come and gone, and a lot of people who aren’t conservative movement types (e.g., the entire WaPo contingent at the event seemed to be very impressed.) You can expect Jeb’s many Beltway fans to make this a Game Changing moment in the 2016 cycle.

While I agree the specter of Jeb getting hooted out of the hall as he emulated his family’s signature verbal problems did not appear, I’d say the takeaway depends very much on whether or not you consider surviving the event in good form an actual accomplishment. Consider Chris Cillizza’s very positive take:

Did people walk out when Jeb Bush started speaking at CPAC today in Maryand? Sure. Did he get heckled and booed at times during his q and a with conservative commentator Sean Hannity? Sure. Did Bush more than hold his own with an audience that was ready to embarrass him in front of every national reporter in the country? Yes.

Jeb was also helped by a friendlier-than-I-expected interrogator in Hannity who, while he did ask him about immigration and Common Core, threw the former Florida governor any number of lifelines by touting his conservative record on affirmative action, taxes and school vouchers. (Hannity even added in a Terri Schiavo reference.) And, Bush’s campaign team smartly made sure that the CPAC ballroom had its fair share of their own people in it — ensuring a built-in cheering section to overcome the boos.

Good luck, smart organization and a solid performance in the face of adversity is what successful presidential campaigns are built on.

This is all another way of saying Jeb played the expectations game very well, and benefitted from an extremely friendly questioner and an audience his critics stupidly let him stack by attempting a half-assed walk-out. He did not, however, do a lot to address the substantive issues conservatives have with him. The prime example involves immigration policy, where he defended his “path to legality” position by asserting nobody “has a plan” to deport 11 million undocumented people. If he keeps saying that, conservatives are going to begin to ask him: “So why don’t you give us one, smart guy?” As Seth Michaels notes on Twitter, the “yes to legality, no to citizenship” straddle Jeb’s embraced–probably by a three-to-two vote among his consultants–doesn’t really satisfy anybody:

And as Seth concludes, that makes it the perfect Jeb Bush kind of position.

Similarly, in response to questions about Common Core, Jeb did a good job of yelling Voucher! Voucher! Voucher! But he’s still for objective and national education standards, and with conservatives increasingly moving towards the position that only a kid’s parents have any right to participate in any decisions about his or her education, it’s just not enough.

So yeah, Jeb did a good job at CPAC playing the hand he’s dealt himself. But he’s still got a “base problem” that cannot be conjured away, much as his fans wish he could.

Had he seized the occasion to take back and apologize for–or at least redefine–his famous remarks about only being able to win the presidency if he’s willing to lose the primary–now that would have been a bigger deal than getting contrived applause from leather-lunged partisans after most of the people who hate him had left. It’s a deadly insult to conservatives to tell them Republicans have to be ashamed of them, and one that dredges up decades of conservative resentment of “the Establishment” Jebbie embodies.

BTW, Jeb did commit one howler I’m not sure anyone”s quite caught: Hannity asked him about the big divisive GOP issue of the day, the “clean DHS funding” bill the Senate was in the process of enacting. Jeb dodged it in part by talking over him, but then said: “I’m not an expert on the ways of Washington.”

Seriously? The grandson of a senator and the son of one president and the brother of another is going to pretend to be some Beltway-hating outsider populist? Better forget about that line, Jeb!

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.