What Jeb Bush Doesn’t Get About the Presidency

Running for president has almost always been a performance, and Bush is a lousy performer.

Jeb Bush.
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
Ron Fournier
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Ron Fournier
Oct. 29, 2015, 12:52 a.m.

I listened to the first few minutes of Wed­nes­day night’s Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial de­bate in the car, chauf­feur­ing my teen­age son home from an after-school event.

“Who’s the loud guy?” Tyler asked.

“John Kasich,” I replied.

“Which one is Trump?”

“The oth­er loud guy.”

“Who’s that guy?” Tyler nod­ded at the ra­dio as a young-sound­ing GOP can­did­ate re­spon­ded to a CN­BC mod­er­at­or who had just asked why he was in such a hurry to leave Con­gress. “That’s ex­actly what the Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment says, too: ‘Wait in line,’” the can­did­ate replied. “Wait for what?”

I told Tyler that was Marco Ru­bio. “He’s a good de­bater.”

Tyler nod­ded. “Yes,” he said, “but a good de­bater doesn’t make you a good pres­id­ent.” Not ne­ces­sar­ily.

I sus­pect Jeb Bush went to bed Wed­nes­day night telling him­self something sim­il­ar after Ru­bio, a fel­low Flor­idi­an and former protégé, wiped the Col­or­ado floor with him. A good de­bater doesn’t make you a good pres­id­ent.

But a bad de­bater prob­ably can’t be­come pres­id­ent—not in an age of celebrity and so­cial me­dia, when a real­ity TV star sits atop the polls and every Amer­ic­an has the power to cre­ate and crawl in­to elec­tron­ic fantasy worlds.

Jeb Bush is a bad de­bater.

This be­came ap­par­ent as Tyler and I pulled in­to our drive­way, and Bush began his well-re­hearsed at­tack on Ru­bio’s re­cord of high ab­sent­ee­ism in the Sen­ate. “When you signed up for this, this is a six-year term, and you should be show­ing up to work,” Bush said. He turned to face Ru­bio, al­most dra­mat­ic­ally. “You can cam­paign or just resign and let someone else take the job.”

Ru­bio’s vot­ing re­cord had been in the news for days, so the young­er man had his script ready. Ru­bio first com­pared his ab­sent­ee re­cord to that of past pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates, in­clud­ing 2008 GOP nom­in­ee John Mc­Cain. “I don’t re­mem­ber you ever com­plain­ing about John Mc­Cain’s vote re­cord,” Ru­bio said.

With Bush sput­ter­ing, Ru­bio ad­ded, “The only reas­on why you’re do­ing it now is be­cause we’re run­ning for the same po­s­i­tion, and someone con­vinced you that at­tack­ing me is go­ing to help you.”

Boom.

Later, mod­er­at­or John Har­wood asked Bush about the fast-rising fantasy-foot­ball in­dustry that is un­der leg­al and polit­ic­al scru­tiny. “I’m 7-0 in my fantasy foot­ball league,” Bush replied. The former Flor­ida gov­ernor was clearly try­ing to con­nect with the mil­lions of fans who bet on play­ers’ per­form­ances. In an­oth­er con­text, his an­swer would have been en­dear­ing. On this night, with the stakes so high for a cam­paign los­ing the con­fid­ence of the GOP es­tab­lish­ment, Bush was a bit goofy.

“Fantasy foot­ball!” New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie shouted from stage left. “We have IS­IS and al-Qaeda at­tack­ing us and we’re talk­ing about fantasy foot­ball?”

To­ward the end of the de­bate, Bush cam­paign man­ager Danny Diaz an­grily con­fron­ted a CN­BC pro­du­cer about the re­l­at­ive lack of time the mod­er­at­ors gave Bush. “I ex­pressed my dis­pleas­ure about the way the de­bate was man­aged and the amount of time [we got],” Diaz said.

While every cam­paign and the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee had com­plaints about the mod­er­at­ors’ ques­tions, Diaz’s dis­pleas­ure should be re­served for his boss.

Privately, donors and con­sult­ants close to the Bush fam­ily told me they were hor­ri­fied by his per­form­ance, es­pe­cially giv­en that it came after the Flor­idi­an was warned that he was run­ning out of time to break out. Ana­lyz­ing her friend’s per­form­ance on CNN, Bush back­er Ann Nav­arro looked and soun­ded so des­pond­ent that the former gov­ernor felt com­pelled to buck her up.

“Hang in there, baby,” Bush told Nav­arro via an in­ter­view with CNN’s Dana Bash.

The re­port­er pressed: Isn’t he wor­ried how his per­form­ance will play? Bush shrugged and said if people want a per­former-in-chief, he’s not their guy. Later, while leav­ing the de­bate site, Bush snapped at re­port­ers: “It’s not a per­form­ance. I’m run­ning for the pres­id­ent of the United States.”

Here’s the prob­lem: Run­ning for pres­id­ent and serving as pres­id­ent have al­most al­ways been a per­form­ance, cer­tainly in the mod­ern age. Ab­ra­ham Lin­coln cre­ated and fed the rail-split­ter’s myth. Teddy Roosevelt cam­paigned across the na­tion in a private train car, his trav­el­ing stage. His cous­in Frank­lin gathered a weary na­tion around a vir­tu­al fire­place. John Kennedy starred in Cam­elot, Ron­ald Re­agan gave a City Upon a Hill its second act, and Bill Clin­ton cast him­self in the Place Called Hope. Every pres­id­ent since Wash­ing­ton used the latest tech­no­logy to amp­li­fy his hero story.

Like it or not, Bush is run­ning for pres­id­ent amid the dis­mant­ling of a me­dia busi­ness mod­el that had its roots in Teddy Roosevelt’s pres­id­ency. His is an era dom­in­ated by so­cial me­dia, par­tis­an me­dia, and cor­por­ate me­dia.

He’s right: There is much more to the pres­id­ency than a per­form­ance. Ru­bio may be no deep­er than a spot­light. But if Bush wants the job, he’s gotta per­form.

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