Behind the Jeb shakeup: The problem isn’t just money, it’s message

Jeb Bush’s campaign is now openly floundering.

The media have held back on criticizing him because he raised a huge war chest and therefore was expected to surge later on. Because we’ve never quite let go of that somehow, some way, he would become the front-runner. Because he’s a Bush.

But the mounting problems are too big to ignore.

This became obvious when Bloomberg reported that Jeb is “removing some senior staff from the payroll, parting ways with some consultants, and downsizing its Miami headquarters to save more than $1 million per month and cut payroll by 40 percent this week.”

Obviously the Bush campaign got too bloated and couldn’t sustain this level of spending by a candidate who is mired in single digits.

“Jeb is one of just a few candidates--possibly the only candidate--with multiple paths through the February states and the resources and ground game to execute in them, in addition to the durability to play aggressively in March,” Tim Miller, Bush’s communications director, told me.

“We already have the biggest ground organization in New Hampshire, where we are leading our lane, and we are about to send more resources there to grow voter contact and persuasion. This comes in addition to what we believe are the best teams in Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada.”

Jeb, meanwhile, let his frustration show in South Carolina over the weekend, saying he wasn’t campaigning to preside over gridlock: “I’ve got a lot of really cool things I could do other than sit around, being miserable, listening to other people demonize me and me feeling compelled to demonize them. That is a joke. Elect Trump if you want that.”

He's not a happy warrior at the moment.

This kind of shakeup doesn’t immediately spell doom. John McCain fired some consultants and slashed his budget to bare bones in the summer of 2007 and still somehow won the nomination.

But the crisis for Bush may be much more fundamental. To this point, at least, he hasn’t been a very compelling candidate.

Jeb Bush was a solid governor of Florida. But as a national candidate, putting aside Donald Trump’s “low energy” jab, he seems to lack passion. He was lackluster in the two debates. He just doesn’t seem that comfortable out on the trail.

And his interviews are almost invariably flat. He is almost invariably asked these days why he’s not doing better, and he gives the same rote response.

Megyn Kelly: “What would it take to make you get out?

JebBush: “I'm not getting out. My -- I believe that we have a plan to be very competitive in the early states. We have the resources to stay with this. I'm campaigning hard, I'm campaigning with heart. I'm campaigning in a way that will draw people toward our cause.”

When Bush says he’s campaigning with heart, he’s reading the talking points. He needs to show us heart, to pivot to something that matters to voters rather than talking process. When he says that Herman Cain and Rudy Giuliani once led the polls, he’s just giving us warmed-over punditry.

What, in a nutshell, is Jeb’s campaign about? Smaller, more efficient government, sure. And he has stuck to his guns on Common Core and immigration reform, even though these positions aren’t popular with the conservative Republican base.

Now the hope is to expand on retail politicking, along with what the operatives call “earned media.”

“Our focus is getting him in front of more voters on the ground in these states, but I'd expect an interview uptick as well,” Miller told me.

Bush calls this the “lean and mean” approach. In a memo, the campaign took a whack at Trump: “It’s no secret that the contours of this race have changed from what was anticipated at the start.  We would be less than forthcoming if we said we predicted in June that a reality television star supporting Canadian-style single-payer health care and partial-birth abortion would be leading the GOP primary.”

But while Trump upended the race, Bush has struggled to connect with voters. He needs to find a way to break through. He rarely makes news on his own terms, that is, when he’s not responding to Trump on his brother’s preparedness for 9/11 or some other attack. His own donors are starting to say unflattering things to reporters, without attribution, of course.

Jeb is at 7 percent nationally in the ABC/Washington Post poll, 5 percent in Iowa in the Bloomberg poll. He’s not just losing to Trump and Ben Carson, he’s back in the pack.

The Bloomberg story says that “analysts and rival campaigns will view the changes as a desperate act,” and that’s true. I view it as a rational response to a stalled campaign that clearly needs to find a new direction.

It may be that the ex-governor has the misfortune of running as a conventional politician from an establishment family in a cycle when an angry electorate wants an outsider who can bring radical change. Whether Bush can adjust to the country’s mood will determine whether he can revive his struggling campaign.

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