The vibe at Jeb Bush’s downtown Des Moines caucus “briefing” Monday afternoon is upbeat and upscale — but it’s taking place under the shadow of reports circulating in the right-wing media that the campaign is paying an army of “seat fillers” $25 an hour to make this rally look full. Paid or unpaid, the attendees are more Young Republican than the Baptist-camp-meeting look that prevailed at the Mike Huckabee rally I attended Sunday.
But Huck and Jeb are roughly in the same place going into Monday night’s caucuses — that is, tied for seventh place with Kasich, Fiorina, and Santorum in the final Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll.
On the other hand, Huck isn’t going anywhere but out of the race tomorrow, and by most accounts Jeb has enough of an investment in New Hampshire and enough left of his “shock-and-awe” super-pac haul to push on (indeed, he’s heading out to the Granite State right after this event). The deadly threat to him (aside from the plenary threat Donald Trump poses to all Establishment Republicans) in Iowa is a Marco Rubio finish that excites former Jeb backers into switching horses and pressuring the Bush campaign to stop its snippy-gram ads criticizing the Florida senator.
When Jeb walks in, the crowd starts chanting “President Bush! President Bush!” which sounds familiar. A Congressional Medal of Honor winner who begins the proceedings refers to him as “George — er, Jeb — Bush.”
Governor Terry Branstad introduces Jeb today (after a tribute to wounded veterans). Like Chuck Grassley, he’s doing a lot of that, without endorsing anyone — but without question, Branstad’s brand of Republicanism is a lot closer to Jeb’s than to that of the two candidates likely to finish at the top tonight. He does his “governors are better leaders” number, which ol’ Terry has done countless times in previous cycles, and then rolls through Bush’s résumé, with special emphasis on one of Jeb’s Achilles-heel issues, education, which is interesting.
Amazingly, Branstad concludes without mentioning ethanol, and turns it over to Jeb with an awkward reference to a fund-raiser Bush did for him in Florida.
Suddenly, two young men stand up and yell out, “We’ve been here for two hours and haven’t gotten paid.” They are quickly ejected by security. The interruption is yet another recapitulation of the general sense of failure that has haunted Jeb’s campaign from around the time Trump entered the race.
When he finally gets going, Jeb attacks Obama as someone who “blamed his predecessor” (President Bush! President Bush!) for the country’s problems, and failed to keep his promise — which Bush locates in his 2008 Iowa victory speech rather than the 2004 convention speech — to be bipartisan.
This isn’t news anymore, but Jeb now unabashedly cites his brother along with his father as examples of presidents who “got it right” on national security. At one point, he defiantly announces his brother is “the most popular Republican alive today.” No problems with that in this crowd.
What strikes one most while listening to Bush is that he just can’t manage the apocalyptic tone of most of his Republican rivals. For him, ISIS — or even “radical Islamic terrorism,” to use the obligatory incantation — is an external threat like others the country has faced, but not an “existential” threat, much less an ally of the bad, bad people in the Democratic Party plotting to destroy America from the inside out.
His altar call is perfunctory; after all, people are waiting in New Hampshire. But no, he’s taking some questions. The first is about federal budget deficits, which seems to fit this crowd pretty well. Jeb gets most animated talking about “civil service reform,” which isn’t a phrase one hears often on the 2016 campaign trail. And Lord, here’s a question about the “death tax.” Interestingly, Jeb goes off on a tangent about civility and not impugning people’s motives, and flips that over into a call for term limits on the grounds that pols are too worried about being primaried.
All in all, I feel like I’m listening to a Republican candidate from 20 or 30 years ago. But that’s a reflection less on Jeb Bush than on how rapidly the Republican Party has moved to the right. And it’s interesting to see that, having spent $80 million or so to descend from the front-running position to where he is now, he’s not frantically signalling his right-wing bona fides.
Having said all that, the odds are pretty low that Jeb Bush will still be in this race by the time his own state comes up on the primary calendar on March 15. So if you like his brand of Republicanism, don’t blink.