GOP 2016: Is it time for Jeb Bush to pack up his attack ads and go home?

Carl Cameron reports from New Hampshire


We are just one week away from the Iowa Caucuses. The presumed front runner last year at this time? Jeb Bush. Or rather “Jeb!” as his campaign has dubbed him, hoping to add a little excitement to the mix (and possibly to underplay his famous last name.)   

But after one year of failing to rev up voter enthusiasm, is it time for Jeb to pack up his attack ads and go home?

Not only are his poll numbers far from where his supporters thought they would be by now, Jeb is also acting as spoiler, destroying the candidate most likely to beat Hillary Clinton. In doing so, it appears his nasty campaign against Marco Rubio has wrecked his own chances. In clobbering his popular rival and one-time mentee, Bush has shown himself either incapable of bucking the operatives running his Super PAC, or full of baloney.

After eight years of Barack Obama, the last thing this country needs is another weak-kneed leader. Or a hypocrite.

For months, Jeb Bush publicly agonized over whether he should run for president.  Bush worried that he would be forced into the political gutter, claiming that he would only run if his campaign could focus “on the issues.” He was eager to lay out his prescriptions for solving the country’s ills, to push education and tax reform, for instance, but not keen to engage in a cage match with the other contestants.  He wanted to run “joyfully” because he thought the country needed a candidate who would “lift the country’s spirits.”

The head of Bush’s Super PAC apparently sees the campaign differently. Since Right to Rise (R2R) has raised ten times the money brought in by the campaign, it’s easy to imagine who’s calling the shots. Mike Murphy, according to some, is on a personal vendetta against Marco Rubio, whom Bush loyalists consider disloyal for having entered the race. As a result, R2R has spent an astonishing $20 million on ads attacking the Florida Senator – about one third of the Super PAC’s ad spending to date, and more than the group has spent undermining any other candidate.

Some of the ads target Rubio’s attendance record in the Senate, and his numerous missed votes. Some paint him a flip-flopper, changing positions with the shifting political winds. And then there was a cheesy ad mocking Rubio’s boots, of all things, which surely was another rung down into the gutter. (In fairness, the New York Times ran no less than four pieces on Rubio’s boots.)

That poke was, as Rob Garver described it in The Fiscal Times, supposed to be funny but instead came across as “awkward and uncomfortable, like a Dad joke told in a car full of teenagers.” 

Has the assault on Rubio helped Bush? Certainly not in Iowa, where R2R has spent $8.5 million blasting Rubio. In that state, Bush is languishing in fifth place with only 3 percent of the vote, compared to 14 percent going to Rubio and 37 percent to Trump. In more moderate New Hampshire, a state where the Bush-Rubio rivalry is critical to both campaigns, the Bush Super PAC has spent $7.5 million attacking Rubio.

The gap between Bush and Rubio has narrowed, but most polls show Marco leading by a few points. The ads appear to have hurt Rubio, who was comfortably in second place in early January, with 14 percent of the vote. But, they haven’t helped Bush, who has been stuck since the beginning of the year at 8 percent.

Perhaps more important, the attack ads haven’t helped Bush nationally. Back in September the former Florida governor claimed an almost 10 percent support amongst GOP primary voters; now he’s under 5 percent. In terms of how voters see Bush, the news is not good. Some 54 percent have an unfavorable view of Jeb compared to 32 percent who see him more kindly.

The gap has widened in recent months. Ditto for Marco Rubio, who during most of the past year had a net favorable rating; he is now upside down, with the unfavorable/favorable ratio at 41/36.

Jeb Bush has disappointed followers who expected him to run as he had promised, on solving the nation’s issues. As a successful governor of a successful state, Bush brings gravitas and stature to the race. He has also disappointed those who expected Bush’s ability to raise huge early money to put him and keep him out front; Donald Trump upended those expectations, and every other aspect of the race.  

Jeb has also disappointed those who expected him to be a better campaigner. After all, he has run for office successfully in the past; people wonder now, how did he win?

The most likely answer is that he won by being himself, not the puppet of his Super PAC. Though there is supposed to be clear distance between the campaign and R2R, Murphy’s influence is undoubted. Murphy and Bush have worked together on campaigns since 1997; Murphy claimed in a Bloomberg interview, “I understand what Jeb wants, I understand what kind of campaign he wants…”  So, was Bush’s promise of a “joyous” campaign utter bunk, or has he been hijacked by his operatives? 

The most cringe-worthy moment of Jeb’s campaign came during the CNBC debate, when he challenged Rubio over missed votes. The moderator had already raised the issue and Rubio had successfully parried it, making Bush’s attack superfluous and awkward. Jeb had clearly been instructed to go after Rubio, and he did as he was told. 

That was not Bush’s only awkward campaign moment. Like Hillary Clinton chastising the banks that pay her so well, the more inauthentic Jeb becomes, the more likely he is to flop.  Perhaps that’s why he can barely deliver a sentence that doesn’t include a verbal hitch. In his head, he is thinking one thing, but his directors have him saying another.

Jeb could come back, but to do so he has to campaign as himself – showing voters the serious but also personable candidate they see in small gatherings.

Take back control of the campaign, ditch the nastiness, and he might have a shot.

The sooner the better.

Liz Peek is a writer who contributes frequently to She is a financial columnist who also writes for The Fiscal Times. For more visit Follow her on Twitter@LizPeek.