Jeb Bush and his inner circle are increasingly frustrated by media reports portraying a campaign that is struggling and unlikely to meet its financial goals.
A Washington Post front-page piece yesterday—“How Jeb Bush’s Campaign Ran Off Course Before It Even Began”—was perhaps the most negative of a spate of articles spawned by his hiring of a new campaign manager days before he officially declares his presidential candidacy on Monday.
But Jeb World is even more steamed about a Post story citing “people close to the operation” as saying that his super PAC “is likely to fall short of collecting $100 million by the end of this month, despite widespread expectations that the group would hit that record-breaking sum.”
One Bush insider familiar with the operation threw down the gauntlet, saying the super PAC and related groups will definitely raise the $100 million. “Will anybody at the Post get fired when the report comes out and they’re proven wrong about their finance predictions?” this person told me. “Why can’t they wait for the report like everyone else?” Presidential campaigns will reveal their spending in Federal Election Commission reports that are due in July.
Much of the media have used the personal shuffle—in which Bush hired Danny Diaz as campaign manager, shifted David Kochel to a strategic role and put longtime adviser Mike Murphy in charge of his super PAC—to portray Jeb as an underperforming candidate. The Post piece said his early months “have been defined by a series of miscalculations, leaving his standing considerably diminished.”
Jeb Bush himself said at an impromptu news conference in Berlin: “It’s June, for crying out loud, so we’ve got a long way to go,” and that his decision was “based on the skills of people I got to know.” Presidential campaigns have a long history of such shakeups, going back to Ronald Reagan firing his campaign manager on the day of the 1980 New Hampshire primary.
It’s hardly a stretch to say that Jeb hasn’t been a dominant candidate. Despite his widespread name recognition as a Bush and as a two-term Florida governor, Jeb is bunched near the top in many polls with Scott Walker, Marco Rubio and even long shots like Ben Carson. He didn’t help himself by fumbling his answer on the Iraq invasion, a misstep that dogged him for days.
“Mr. Bush has encountered intense skepticism from grass-roots Republicans who question his commitment to conservatism, and doubts among party elites that Republicans should nominate another Bush to take on Hillary Rodham Clinton, who they expect will be the Democratic nominee,” the New York Times says.
But interviews suggest that the Bush believes the press artificially inflated expectations for his candidacy.
“The pack overhyped us in the beginning and is now holding us accountable in the pre-season,” the Bush insider says. “We were instantly labeled the front-runner, and we never went for that. The media sets expectations and says you didn’t meet them.”
Jeb Bush regards the media as important—he’s answered 900 questions from reporters, donors and ordinary citizens—but is also frustrated with his coverage. Those close to him say he is annoyed at how many press questions reflect a preoccupation with process and what he deems silly subjects.
While Bush called Vladimir Putin a “bully” on his European trip, for instance, media interest in the internal staff moves has been far greater.
A deeper complaint from the Jeb operation echoes that of many campaigns in the Twitter age. Bush associates believe that a media fascination with second-hand gossip and trivial details drives clicks and ratings, forcing the campaign to expend staff resources to respond and obscuring a more substantive debate.
As one example, the Post tick-tock leads with Murphy’s decision “to hold regular senior staff meetings at an unusual location: a Hyatt hotel inside a terminal at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport…Donors and other Republicans found the setup ungainly for a campaign-in-waiting that was supposed to be based in Florida.”
Except insiders say there was a single high-level meeting with more than a few people, back in March, held there because staffers could get discount flights from far-flung locations.
Even the $100 million goal—which the campaign never set but seems to have been generated by donor chatter—has left Bush confidants mystified. Where, they ask, is the media’s fundraising standard for Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Walker, Rubio and the rest?
With a controversial last name and some positions that may be too moderate for many primary voters, Bush faces his share of obstacles. But one of them may be managing the media’s expectations.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.