Jeb’s Problem Isn’t His Campaign

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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There’s an interesting piece up over at The Washington Post on “How Jeb Bush’s campaign ran off course before it even began.” Meanwhile, Chris Bedford argues that Team Bush is in “a lot more trouble than they’re letting on.”

These are fascinating examples of “process” reporting, but I can’t help but think it creates the wrong impression — which is that Jeb Bush might be in better shape had he run a better campaign.

The truth is that campaigns do matter. And, for some candidates, the advisers and staffers they hire — and the strategy and messaging they employ (all the things that we want to believe we can control) — really can make or break a candidacy.

But that’s not the case with Jeb.

As far as I can tell, there were two fundamental strategic decisions Team Jeb made early on. The first was to simply attempt a shock-and-awe blitzkrieg in an attempt to scare potential competitors out of the race. This potentially impacted Mitt Romney’s decision not to get in the race, but otherwise fell flat for many reasons (not the least of which being the rise of super PACs).

Still, it was a gamble worth taking, and Team Bush had to know that it might not work. But here’s the thing: What did it cost them to try? Would they have been better off just playing it cool and doing a soft rollout? Is campaigning hard ever a bad idea??

The second strategic decision was to stick with Bush’s positions on immigration reform and Common Core. These are not the kinds of decisions made by strategists — these are decisions that are made by the candidate. One could argue that he would have been better off to abandon these long-held policies (I’m not convinced), but I think we’d all agree that you can’t blame his campaign team for making the wrong call.

Once you get past those two big strategic decisions — the first being one that was an utterly defensible gamble, and the other being a decision made by the candidate — you end up having a team of operatives who are basically charged with blocking and tackling, executing, and making the trains run on time. And, as far as I can tell, they’ve done their job.

The fundamental problem with the campaign, of course, is Jeb Bush. It’s the fact that his version of conservatism (and make no mistake, he was a very conservative governor) has fallen out of fashion in a world where your conservatism is defined by how angry you are and how much you did to fight Obama. It’s the fact that there is a hunger for someone new and fresh — that there’s a sense it’s time to “pass the torch to a new generation.” There’s the fact that conservatives aren’t terribly enamored with his father and brother. And there’s the fact that he’s perhaps the only Republican in America who can’t run against The Clinton Dynasty.

So while I love stories about Mike Murphy holding meetings at the Dallas airport as much as anyone, the real problem is, to quote Yogi Berra: “If people don’t want to come out to the ball park, nobody’s gonna stop ’em.”