Can Jeb Bush fix what ails faltering campaign?

Jeb Bush made a stop at a community school in Milwaukee this week prior to Tuesday night’s GOP debate.
Jeb Bush made a stop at a community school in Milwaukee this week prior to Tuesday night’s GOP debate. Bloomberg

Reboot. Reset. Restart. Call it what you like, Jeb Bush is frantically trying to breathe new life into his moribund presidential campaign. But he can’t put lipstick on a campaign that refuses to be prettified. Its problems are more than cosmetic.

Jeb’s latest rebranding effort relies on the slogan “Jeb Can Fix It,” which is reminiscent in the worst way of Ross Perot ca. 1992, saying he’d fix what ailed America if he could “just get under the hood.”

Aside from stealing “Jeb Can Fix It” from from an Austin, Texas, city council candidate (who lost), adopting the slogan is emblematic of pretty much everything that’s wrong with Jeb’s campaign. The conservative GOP base — and especially the Tea Party faction — don’t want someone to “fix” Washington; they want someone to nuke it. For them, it’s not a matter of repairing a broken system; it’s about creating a new system. They want a disrupter. Jeb is not a disrupter.

Donald Trump and Ben Carson, however, are disrupters and, more important, outsiders not tainted by having held elective office. Trump, however, is tainted by his outsized ego, narcissism and lack of specificity on how he would “make American great again.” And by the way, to what period of American greatness does he want to return? The one when black people were second-class citizens and women stayed home and raised babies?

Dr. Carson is tainted by over-embellishing his life story, which is remarkable and needs no embellishment. No one disputes that he was an outstanding neurosurgeon. But he appears to have stretched the truth, exaggerated wildly or simply fabricated some self-aggrandizing episodes in his life And he bristles when reporters ask him for proof. “Don’t lie,” he shouted at a reporter in Palm Beach Gardens who asked about an episode Carson he’d written about in one of his serial autobiographies. And how strange is it that Carson now seems intent on proving he was something of a young thug, so violent as a boy that he allegedly attacked his mother with a hammer and tried to stab his best friend. The best friend has never been identified. His claim about being offered a “full scholarship” to West Point is self-serving baloney. Also suspicious is Carson’s tale of being honored at Yale as the “most honest student” in “Perceptions 301,” a psychology class the school says it never offered.

Carson blames the hullabaloo on the news media, an ever-popular and occasionally deserving whipping boy. Conservatives detest Washington insiders, but truly hate the media. We are, as a group, often arrogant and unlikable, but what’s new about that? What matters is that Carson’s campaign, which is based primarily on his outsider status and personal integrity, has been seriously questioned.

Integrity is not an issue with Jeb. He’s got it in spades. Conservative bona fides, too. Brainy as all get-out. But his campaign is foundering because his temperament and skill set are out of sync with the zeitgeist. Our former governor is a policy wonk who likes nothing more than a deep dive into the arcane inner workings of knotty issues like school choice, health insurance and the criminal justice system. Jeb can discuss those things ad nauseam. What he can’t do so well is stand on stage and go toe-to-toe over more banal questions — “What’s your biggest weakness?” — under the hot glare of TV lights and pushy moderators.

When Jeb was in Tallahassee he was the smartest guy in the room (and let you know it). Now he’s in a much bigger room with several smart men and women, several of whom possess better political skills. Like Marco Rubio, his onetime protégé. Jeb’s response has been to get petulant and churlish. He complained recently that he could be doing some “really cool things” if he didn’t have to spend so darned much time attacking his opponents. In the third GOP debate, he said he couldn’t pretend to be angry all the time. Fair enough, but showing a little fire now and then wouldn’t hurt. Trump’s accusation of Jeb being “low energy” stings because it’s mostly true.

Jeb’s campaign is going nowhere because he’s just not hungry enough. That is, he wants to be president and may at some subconscious level feel entitled to it by dint of genes and family history. But he’s not willing to put everything on the line to get it.. In the very good movie The Untouchables, a tough Irish cop played by Sean Connery keeps asking T-Man Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner), whenever he wavers, “What are you willing to do?” Somebody in the Bush campaign needs to put that question to Jeb.

When he got into the race, his political skills were rusty. He was dreadful in the debates. But only in the last week did he hire a TV coach who’s worked with Fox News anchors. He should have been hired a year ago.

Jeb wants everyone to remember what a terrific governor he was back in the day. But that day was a long time ago. The question voters always ask is: What have you done for me lately? For Jeb, the answer is not much. Yes, he stayed involved in education reform after he left office, but that’s it. The rest of the time he hung out in corporate board rooms and at the Biltmore Hotel and golf course, hardly the milieu of Joe the Plumber..

Out of touch. Out of sync. “Jeb Can Fix It” won’t fix what ails his campaign.