If you were in Washington watching the Republican debate last night, you might have felt a small tilt in the floor, or heard the plates rattling gently in their cupboards.
That was the sound of the Republican establishment shifting its collective weight away from Jeb Bush — and inching a little bit closer to their best available alternative.
And no, it’s not Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina.
Not to overstate the crisis here, because one poll can change everything at this stage of a race, but the way I saw it, last night was another minor disaster for Bush. He seemed, yet again, oddly tentative and squirmy, the earnest student body president shoved aside by the boorish quarterback at the pep rally.
That performance probably didn’t do much to help Bush among the millions of Republicans who tuned in, especially in the early primary states. But make no mistake: His most important audience right now is the one that pushed him onto that stage in the first place.
Because if Bush has a natural base in the party, it’s the powerful assemblage of Washington Republicans — politicians, theorists, lobbyists and lawyers — who can be counted on to unify every four years around a known, governing candidate. That’s why he entered the race as the presumed favorite despite an eight-year absence from office. That’s why his super-PAC rolled up more money than the cash-counters at Trump Taj Mahal.
To the capital crowd, Bush’s attributes were always clear. He had a solid record as a big-state, conservative governor. (Has he mentioned lately that he cut taxes by $19 billion?) He had a Latino wife and kids and spoke Spanish fluently — no small thing in a party that’s running out of non-white constituencies to offend. He was a reform Republican, an intellectual who could get right up in the grill of Democrats when it came to education or climate change.
Also, he had that last name. Sure, it was a little tarnished, but no Republican without it has won the presidency since 1984. Think about that.
But the past several weeks have really shaken governing Republicans. It’s not so much the staggering rise of Trump that has them on the verge of panic, although they talk about his potential nomination in apocalyptic terms, as if they imagine themselves, in some altered future, like Charlton Heston in that final scene from “Planet of the Apes,” wailing and beating their chests at the ruins of the Trump Monument on the Tidal Basin.
No, establishment Republicans remain pretty sanguine that Trump, for all his momentum, doesn’t have much room to grow beyond his 30 percent or so of the primary vote. For that, he’d probably have to become more of a statesman, which is like waiting for a turtle to grow feathers and fly.
What has Washington Republicans truly worried is Jeb’s precipitous decline. First there came the series of gaffes, from not being able to evade the most predictable trap — a question about whether he would have invaded Iraq like his brother — to defending the term “anchor babies,” which seemed all at once to erase his image as a thoughtful reformer on illegal immigration.
Then, after leading the nascent field for months, Bush’s poll numbers tumbled in dramatic fashion. Going into Wednesday’s debate, he’d fallen into fifth place in New Hampshire, a state he probably has to win, and into third place nationally, with less than 10 percent of the Republican vote.
Governing Republicans have been baffled at the way Bush decided to go after Trump in recent weeks — by trying to impeach his credentials as a conservative, when it’s obvious to everyone else on the planet that Trump’s appeal has nothing to do with ideology. They wonder why his super-PAC waited until this week to start spending money on ads. They’re mystified that it took him until September to roll out a half-visionary policy proposal, on reforming the tax code, which he did little to promote.
Going into last night’s debate, longtime Republicans with whom I talked seemed to want two things from Bush. They wanted him to pivot away from his record in Florida — which no one much cares about, judging from the early success of candidates who have no record at all — and toward his vision for how he would actually govern.
And they wanted him to seize control of the debate by engaging Trump on policy. Enough about how Trump secretly loved Hillary Clinton or how he once gave money to Democrats; it was time to expose him as an entertainer who couldn’t hold his own when it came to foreign or domestic policy.
You can argue about whether these were the right strategies. But you can’t make the case that Bush did much of anything last night to reassure his critics on either count.
Bush and Trump went at it several times in the opening minutes of the debate, but Jeb went right back to his litany of Florida statistics, almost pleading with Trump at one point: “I have a proven record. I have a proven record.”
Inexplicably, he didn’t mention his own tax plan. Nor did he confront Trump on any policy details. Instead he complained, feebly, about Trump cutting him off.
“You’ve got more energy tonight. I like that,” Trump mockingly told Bush at one point.
Bush stiffly defended his wife, whom Trump had disparaged in a tweet. “To subject my wife into the middle of raucous political conversation was completely inappropriate,” Bush said, as if he were bringing a complaint before the grievance committee of the bar association.
Responding to Trump’s nonsensical suggestion that it was wrong to speak Spanish on the campaign trail, Bush began: “I’ve been speaking English here tonight, and I’ll keep speaking English.”
Glad we cleared that up.
You can just about hear the footsteps of ruling Republicans as they tiptoe away from Bush and start to rethink this whole thing. Parties, like nature, abhor a vacuum.
The question you hear now is: Who’s the fallback?
Chris Christie seems too damaged. Rand Paul seems too erratic. Scott Walker seems too much like Scott Walker.
To hear governing Republicans tell it, there are only two “nominate-able” candidates on the stage, aside from Bush. One is Marco Rubio, who has performed well in the debates, but who has yet to find a compelling theme or a foothold in New Hampshire, where the establishment figures it will have to stop Trump or whoever emerges from the purity test in Iowa.
The other is John Kasich. And he’s the guy Bush ought to be worried about.
It was Kasich, and not Bush, who scolded the debate moderator, CNN’s Jake Tapper, early in the debate for not focusing on policy. It was Kasich who forced himself into the foreign policy debate from the edge of the stage a few minutes later, refusing to be silenced. It was Kasich who dared to make a spirited defense of globalism, vowing to rebuild foreign alliances.
Fiorina had the flashier moments and the best night. But Kasich did exactly what he had to do: He came off as a strong, capable alternative for party loyalists considering a change of direction.
Washington Republicans remember Kasich well from his years in Congress. They remember him, in a lot of cases, as impetuous and immature.
But now he’s the most successful sitting governor in the field, and he has already surged into double digits in New Hampshire. So far, at least, he has managed to project Midwestern sobriety and a comfort with himself.
And establishment Republicans are already whispering not so quietly about the potential of a Kasich-Rubio ticket, if that’s what it takes to dispatch both Trump and Clinton.
Now, you might reasonably ask: So what? Who needs an establishment these days, anyway? If the party had any power, there wouldn’t be 17 candidates to begin with.
True enough. But the consensus of the establishment can still matter, at least as far as we know, when it comes to raising money and stitching together state organizations in the critical months before the voting begins. Key endorsements in Washington still send a powerful signal to Republican influencers in the states.
It’s not an accident that the Republicans nominated George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney in their last three competitive contests — all of them establishment picks.
By the end of the year, someone will have emerged as the anti-Trump or anti-Carson in the field, the candidate who makes the establishment case that experience and electability are assets, rather than evils, when it comes to winning back the White House.
That candidate could still be Jeb Bush. He’s got time to steady himself, and plenty of cash.
But opportunity knocks for Ohio’s governor. And last night, once again, Bush left the door wide open.
(Cover tile photo: Mark J. Terrill/AP)