I don’t tend to agree with Yahoo’s Matt Bai about too many things. But if there’s one thing he almost certainly knows more about at any given moment than I do, it’s how very powerful people think. So we should probably pay attention to what he heard from elements of the Republican Establishment after Wednesday’s GOP debate, as reported in a piece entitled “Jeb leaves a vacuum. Who fills it?”:

If you were in Washington watching the Republican debate last night, you might have felt a small tilt in the floor, or heard the plates rattling gently in their cupboards.

That was the sound of the Republican establishment shifting its collective weight away from Jeb Bush — and inching a little bit closer to their best available alternative.

Bai’s hearing, you see, that the people who have been backing and bankrolling Jeb’s presidential bid gave him some fairly precise instructions about how to comport himself on that stage, and he clearly didn’t pay attention:

Going into last night’s debate, longtime Republicans with whom I talked seemed to want two things from Bush. They wanted him to pivot away from his record in Florida — which no one much cares about, judging from the early success of candidates who have no record at all — and toward his vision for how he would actually govern.

And they wanted him to seize control of the debate by engaging Trump on policy. Enough about how Trump secretly loved Hillary Clinton or how he once gave money to Democrats; it was time to expose him as an entertainer who couldn’t hold his own when it came to foreign or domestic policy.

You can argue about whether these were the right strategies. But you can’t make the case that Bush did much of anything last night to reassure his critics on either count.
Bush and Trump went at it several times in the opening minutes of the debate, but Jeb went right back to his litany of Florida statistics, almost pleading with Trump at one point: “I have a proven record. I have a proven record.”

Inexplicably, he didn’t mention his own tax plan. Nor did he confront Trump on any policy details. Instead he complained, feebly, about Trump cutting him off.

“You’ve got more energy tonight. I like that,” Trump mockingly told Bush at one point.

So where are exasperated Establishmentarians casting their wandering eyes? You’d figure it would be toward the one-time Tea Party hero who more than any other candidate fits the template for a general election winner, and whose favorable/unfavorable ratings among the rank-and-file have remained strong throughout the stormy Invisible Primary: Marco Rubio. And Bai does mention him as a possible fallback for Jeb-despairers. But he saves most of his words–and he seems to be speaking for his centrist-loving self as much as for the Republican Establishment–to boost John Kasich, perhaps with young Marco as his running-mate.

It was Kasich, and not Bush, who scolded the debate moderator, CNN’s Jake Tapper, early in the debate for not focusing on policy. It was Kasich who forced himself into the foreign policy debate from the edge of the stage a few minutes later, refusing to be silenced. It was Kasich who dared to make a spirited defense of globalism, vowing to rebuild foreign alliances.

Fiorina had the flashier moments and the best night. But Kasich did exactly what he had to do: He came off as a strong, capable alternative for party loyalists considering a change of direction.

Washington Republicans remember Kasich well from his years in Congress. They remember him, in a lot of cases, as impetuous and immature.

But now he’s the most successful sitting governor in the field, and he has already surged into double digits in New Hampshire. So far, at least, he has managed to project Midwestern sobriety and a comfort with himself.

And establishment Republicans are already whispering not so quietly about the potential of a Kasich-Rubio ticket, if that’s what it takes to dispatch both Trump and Clinton.

Sorry, I’m not buying into the Kasich Moment just yet, despite all that “Midwestern sobriety and a comfort with himself,” whatever the hell that means. Maybe I’m just having trouble believing that the Year of the Republican Outsider with all this insane rage at GOP officeholders is going to produce as a nominee a guy who’s been in elected office since the Carter Administration, with an eight-year hiatus where he worked for Lehman Brothers. There’s also the little problem that Kasich fought successfully with his own party in Ohio to impose the slavery of an Obamacare Medicaid Expansion, and continues to justify it by saying it’s God’s Will, which strikes most conservative evangelicals as not just heretical but blasphemous.

Something tells me that it’s not just the GOP donor class that’s been whispering to Bai, but John Weaver. And that thought brought back a vague memory, which drove me to Google.

Sure enough, there it was, from the New York Times Magazine in June of 2011: “Jon Huntsman Steps Into the Republican Vacuum,” by Matt Bai, a gazillion-word puff piece on what would soon become a byword for an empty campaign driven almost solely by media favor. There’s even the same “vacuum” framing in the headline. So it makes me wonder if Kasich is becoming the next Jon Huntsman, and if Bai is projecting his own views of an ideal GOP nominee onto Republican movers-and-shakers.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.