Jebbie’s Really Bad Week

Jeb Bush sure is having himself a bad week.

I will hasten to say that for all I know he’s raised another ten or twenty millions smackers for his Super-PAC while he’s been having this bad week in terms of public perceptions. But having said that, he probably ought to disappear for a few days.

He’s famously gotten himself all wrapped around his own axle in dealing with the insanely predictable question of what he thinks in retrospect about the war in that perennial Bush family project, Iraq. I mean, really, when you resort to the “respect for the troops” excuse for dodging a question about war, you know you’ve reached Nixonian levels of stone-walling.

Bush stumbled again on something pretty basic: accidentally announcing he was running for president when he’s not actually an official candidate. He quickly corrected himself, but the screw-up will provide lots of opportunities for reporters and opponents to explain once again that Jeb’s engaged in a massive violation of the spirit of our few remaining campaign finance rules by extending the period of his non-candidacy so he can openly solicit funds for and strategerize with the “independent” Super-PAC that may be his real campaign organization.

But in the longer run, the thing Jeb did this week that could have the greatest impact may well be his announcement yesterday that he’s skipping the Iowa Straw Poll on August 8. His excuse is that he has committed to attend Erick Erickson’s RedState Gathering the same weekend, in order to show his obeisance to movement conservatives. Five other candidates (Marco Rubio just added his name) are attending RedState, too, and maybe they’ve all made a blood pact to pretend they cannot schedule transportation from Atlanta to Boone, Iowa, and make both events.

If not, and Jeb is conspicuous in skipping–and perhaps killing–the Straw Poll, there will be consequences. And it’s not as though that’s been his only insult to the Great Corn God: he just hasn’t been around much at all.

I doubt it’s a coincidence that the day after Jeb’s latest act of disrespect to Iowa the very influential Craig Robinson, proprietor of The Iowa Republican website, went after Bush with a claw-hammer:

Even with the advantages of who his family is and all the money he has raised, recent polling suggests that Bush isn’t the GOP’s front-runner. The national media was shocked when the latest Quinnipiac poll showed Bush in seventh place in Iowa. A recent Bloomberg poll in New Hampshire has Bush tied with Sen. Marco Rubio for third place. A national PPP Poll that just came out on Wednesday had Bush in fifth place behind Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, and Mike Huckabee.

Think about that for a second. Jeb Bush, with all the advantages he has, is in fifth place in a national poll. If there is one place where Bush should have strong poll numbers, it’s nationally due to high name ID and all the attention he receives. Furthermore, national polls should confirm the media’s perception that Bush is the frontrunner for the GOP nomination, and yet, there he is in fifth place.

Robinson isn’t just taunting Team Bush; he’s making a clever argument that Bush’s whole strategy is based on being the acknowledged front-runner who wins the nomination early and easily on a wave of money and hype. Since he’s not really the front-runner by any objective measurement that includes actual Republican voters, the whole thing could quickly unravel, and the donors could close their checkbooks–particularly if as seems extremely likely Bush has to break his promise to run a positive campaign and instead uses all that money to savage his rivals, who will otherwise beat him.

Bush’s candidacy was built on the premise that he would be the candidate who could build and fund a campaign that was capable of winning the White House. While he has succeeded at raising millions of dollars for his Super PAC, he’s no longer the GOP frontrunner, which means most of that money is going to be used to tear down and destroy his opponents. That’s problematic because that’s not what all of his donors were sold on.

Bush was supposed to be the frontrunner. The primary rules were changed to help the frontrunner lock up the nomination quickly. Now it’s a mess, and all because the candidate the Republican powerbrokers put their money on is a mess of a candidate. Bush either needs to quickly right the ship, or there will be a mutiny by the donors who will suddenly want a refund on the investment they made.

Whatever you think of Bush’s decision to shirk Iowa at this point (which is reversible, of course; Romney skipped the 2011 Straw Poll but still made a late push there that basically tied him with Santorum for the Caucus win), Robinson’s making the very good point that Jeb’s increasingly got a lot to prove in terms of his electoral appeal–in the nominating process and in the general election. There are only so many contests he can skip before people start wondering if he’s the second coming of Phil Gramm. And yes, the narrower Bush’s path to the nomination becomes, the more he’s going to have to start lashing out at the rest of the field, and it’s really not clear how well that’s going to go over.

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.