Who in the so-called GOP establishment lane is going to try to challenge the elite anointment of Marco Rubio? Possibility number one was Jeb Bush, who surely has the money and organization to do it. He had shown some relative strength in New Hampshire, coming in second in one poll, and seemed to make a good impression on people in two previous events I’ve seen him in.
But the morning after Iowa, there wasn’t much evidence of Jeb making a fight of it in New Hampshire. His first event was at Franklin Pierce College, a small, out-of-the-way school in the southwest corner of the state. Students are always good to help fill an audience, and of course some came. So did maybe 120 other, mostly elderly, voters. Lindsey Graham was traveling with Jeb today, and introduced him warmly. Lindsey took some shots at Trump for not spending any nights in the state, but he didn’t mention anyone else.
Jeb didn’t start off with his standard tale of working out with the cadets from the Citadel, who ask him afterwards to promise to “have their back.” Instead, he mentioned three Iowa winners who are not qualified to lead on Day One, but went into specifics only about Trump’s vulgarity. It’s almost as if he has given up on pushing down Rubio as a not-ready-for-primetime upstart, and wants only to hurt Trump. It can’t possibly be a calculation that any Trump’s votes will go to him. It is quite obviously personal. Trump’s insults wrecked his campaign. He is seeking revenge.
Jeb has many qualities you would like to see in a public servant. He is seriously wonkish: there are far too many statistics in his talk for it to be effective as a let’s-excite-people-to-go-to-the-polls vehicle, but he knows them. I don’t think he has to fake being a compassionate, bleeding-heart conservative. And he is quite driven to figure out ways in which a more streamlined, cost-efficient government could serve the less fortunate. His sincerity on this score is palpable.
He is also, I am convinced, after pondering the question for much of the past year, a sincere neocon. He gushed over how much he had learned from Lindsey Graham on foreign policy. Asked a good question about Sunnis and Shi’ites in an anti-ISIS coalition, he gave what amounted to the Netanyahu-approved answer, using tough language to deride first Hezbollah and then Iran for apparently provoking the poor Saudis to bomb Yemen. Unprompted, he promised to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, to “send a signal.” Someone who often displays a subtle ability to weigh competing arguments in domestic-policy disputes seems completely unable or unwilling to do this in foreign-policy questions. So whatever wounds he might have suffered from Rubio having vaulted over him from Florida, it is plain that disagreement with Rubio’s neoconservative foreign-policy positions is not an issue for him.
It may be unfair to call Jeb “low energy.” Few men his age could travel around and give two or three town halls every day, each one loaded with statistics and laden with answers to policy questions. But it is obvious that no political energy comes out of his rallies. People may like Jeb, and think he is capable and good-hearted. But there is no excitement there. Could he hold a lead if he had one? Sure. But he doesn’t have one.
Driving back from Franklin Pierce, I heard MSNBC commentators going in and out of a Hillary speech. I know she’s smart and capable, but people are getting tired of her. This morning, I saw Ezra Klein say that while he didn’t used to think so, he is now pretty sure Elizabeth Warren could have beaten her. I agree.
During the breaks, they played some quick soundbites from Chris Christie, whom everyone has almost forgotten about. Boy is he ever not conceding the establishment lane to Rubio. “Boy in the bubble … terrified to be away from his script … not ready to answer questions on his own … bubble boy.” My quotes are remembered and perhaps not exact, but their spirit is true. It was relentless. Christie’s best political tool is his voice, when he’s not flying off the handle at some question he doesn’t like. But from what I heard from the soundbites, he was eviscerating. I will go to a Christie event ASAP to see how crowds respond to this line of attack.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.