The Problem With Jeb Bush’s Brain

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Meet the Press - Season 67
It's safe to assume that Mike Murphy has been getting some angry phone calls lately.Photo: NBC NewsWire/2014 NBCUniversal Media, LLC

You knew it had to happen soon: Someone at Politico (or actually two someones, Anna Palmer and Eli Stokols) would get on the horn with some of the donors who poured more than $100 million into the Jeb Bush super-pac Right to Rise and would reliably hear and report some high-end bitching. And the object of this unhappiness was equally predictable: Right to Rise chieftain and longtime Republican campaign consultant Mike Murphy, who has burned through about half of the vast RTR war chest even as his candidate went from being the unquestioned front-runner to this feckless and much-ridiculed guy battling Chris Christie for fourth place in Iowa and running 38 points behind a reality-TV star in the state he governed for eight years.

So “burned” is exactly how some of these contributors feel. And thus, they’re not remembering Mike Murphy the alleged strategic genius, but instead Mike Murphy the man who talked Meg Whitman into spending upward of $150 million of her own money to run a hammerheaded ad campaign in 2010 that drove most California swing voters to start screaming “Enough!” at their TV screens well before Election Day. Suddenly every decision Murphy has made is suspect:

Among the many and varied complaints, several Republicans close to the Bush campaign have questioned the PAC’s decision to let John Kasich own the airwaves in New Hampshire this fall, allowing the Ohio governor to get a foothold in a state where Bush must perform well to keep his White House bid alive. Others faulted Right to Rise for spending so much money on telling Bush’s story and not changing tactics immediately after Donald Trump entered the race and began stoking the groundswell of anti-establishment sentiment and defined Bush — lastingly — as “low energy….”

Without some dramatic improvement in Bush’s position, donors say Murphy’s strategy might be doing nothing more than harming Rubio at precisely the moment the GOP could be rallying around an alternative to Trump or Cruz. Those Right to Rise donors who know Bush personally also worry about Murphy’s slash and burn tactics affecting the former governor’s legacy.

When your brother is George W. Bush and you’re worried about damaging the family’s brand, you are in some trouble.

It’s hard to feel too sorry for Murphy. As recently as October, when the donor grumbling became pronounced, he granted an unusual two-part interview (here and here) to political data geek Sasha Issenberg for Bloomberg in which he came across as the smug chess master contemptuous of the campaigns playing checkers around him. He was so overtly self-confident that he even spent a good bit of time talking about work he was doing on the general election. Here was my own impression at the time:

Overall, it’s extremely clear Murphy wants to create the impression that all the gabbers who are focused on polls and debates and other candidates’ strategies are entirely clueless, because Jeb’s got this well in hand.

Now, I guess this sort of thing works as a way of reassuring donors and journalists in the short run. But it also creates expectations. And so mistakes like Murphy’s completely dismissive attitude toward Donald Trump have come back to bite him pretty hard. He’s burned all of his bridges to other camps, too, what with his loose talk toward the end of 2015 about using his millions to “carpet-bomb” the other candidates.

Having said all that, there are some problems with Bush ‘16 that you can’t blame on the misallocation of money or the acceptance of political truisms everyone used to believe in until Donald Trump and Ted Cruz made a hash of them. If you really think about it, the entire message and persona Jeb Bush has tried to present is that he’s the candidate the whole party called for in the famous March 2013 RNCautopsy report“: a genial and pragmatic reformer from a key battleground state who speaks Spanish fluently and knows how to talk about avenues to equal opportunity. It has turned out, to the surprise of many people aside from Bush, that this is actually not what Republican voters seem to have in mind, and they are being stubbornly resistant to the idea of getting back in their places and accepting the candidate or candidates “the party decides” upon. So Jeb’s decision to show general-election swing voters some leg by disagreeing with “the base” on education standards and immigration policy wound up being a disaster instead of a calculated risk. He squandered one precious asset at precisely the wrong time: his reputation as the only seriously ideological conservative in his family. That created openings for both Cruz and Rubio, and left him suddenly without a base other than the money people.  

In any event, barring a miracle, all of the negative analysis and carping about Team Jeb! will soon turn into a political obituary, and some day there may even be a political autopsy if the guy hasn’t already been forgotten. This does look to be Jeb Bush’s last campaign, and probably Mike Murphy’s as well.