Trying To Prove You’re Not Phil Gramm

Before reporting anything–if there is anything to report–about Jeb Bush’s announcement speech, which is due to happen in a few minutes, it’s a good time to reboot the whole discussion of his candidacy. He’s no long trying to crush the opposition and begin cruising to the nomination. He’s trying to prove he’s not Phil Gramm–a guy with tons of money and impressive on-paper accomplishments but not a whole hell of a lot else.

At the Upshot, Nate Cohn ticks off the dismal results so far of Bush’s Invisible Primary campaign:

He has not won the invisible primary, the behind-the-scenes competition for elite support that often decides the nomination, and he has not even emerged as a favorite of the party’s large block of more moderate voters. He starts in a weaker position than not only his brother in 1999 or his father in 1987, but also Mitt Romney in 2011….

What is surprising…is Mr. Bush’s relatively vulnerable standing in the places he had seemed strong only a few months ago. It’s no surprise that he has miserable numbers among Iowa caucus-goers, who are very conservative, and Tea Party supporters nationwide. It is surprising that he has not emerged as a clear favorite in New Hampshire, where self-identified moderates make up nearly half of the electorate. In national polls, he fares no better against Hillary Rodham Clinton than Marco Rubio or Mr. Walker, and his favorability ratings are worse than all of them. The party establishment hasn’t unified around him, perhaps in part as a result of these indicators.

The early signs of Mr. Bush’s strength — like prominent hires, reports of prodigious fund-raising, Mitt Romney’s decision to stay out of the race, and reports that similarly positioned candidates were struggling to find breathing room — have all faded. Some are no longer true….

Even if his fund-raising is as strong as he hoped, there is no reason to expect it will be decisive: Mr. Romney barely won pivotal states like Ohio and Michigan in the 2012 primaries, despite an overwhelming financial and organizational edge over a candidate, Rick Santorum, who was not nearly as strong as Mr. Bush’s competition is today.

Perhaps most important, it’s surprisingly hard to find prominent elites who support Mr. Bush — aside from a spurt of donors and high-profile aides who joined his team a few months ago and late last week. When my colleague Peter Baker recently surveyed 120 people who worked for President George W. Bush, only about 25 responded to say they supported Jeb Bush. You won’t find many Republicans and conservatives praising him on television or in print. So far, Mr. Bush has received no formal endorsements from outside Florida, and nothing is a better indicator of primary strength than endorsements….

[M]uch of the Republican elite has serious reservations about whether Mr. Bush is the best candidate to face Mrs. Clinton. It’s not hard to imagine why: His favorability ratings and standing against her are dismal. Whatever the actual value of public opinion polling at this early stage, the polls give no reason for elites to assume that Mr. Bush is a particularly strong general election candidate.

These are all weaknesses we’ve been noting here at PA for a good long while, even as the Mark Halperins of the world kept calling Jeb the front-runner and acted as though the case for his candidacy was just too obvious for articulation. Yes, a Bush nomination is still possible, of course, but at some point all his interlocking problems–particularly the combo platter of conservative disdain and poor evidence of electability–are going to have to improve or he’ll have to spend all his money in a futile effort to improve them. Marco Rubio is an especially deadly threat to the Jeb candidacy, since he shares both a geographical and ideological base with the former Florida governor, and is by most accounts as well-liked by party elites and better liked by actual Republican voters. No wonder Jeb’s people are openly talking about going after Rubio’s personal financial problems (something I’m surprised there isn’t more talk about today).

Right now the only arrow pointing upward for Bush is the downward trajectory of expectations. But if he doesn’t get a couple of straight weeks of good news pretty soon, an informal death watch will inevitably be formed, and then things could get desperate. I’m sure he’s not thinking about that today in the glow of finally becoming an official candidate, but it’s right there in the rear-view mirror.

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.