You ask a five-year-old to pretend she is a grownup doing a grown-up job, and she will furrow her brow into a stern expression, scrunch up her little mouth into a tight frown, and speak in a deepened, scolding tone of voice. It does a pretty good—and cute!—job of illustrating how a five-year-old perceives the difference between grownups and children, but of course it will not fool an actual grownup into judging this five-year-old qualified for the presidency. A five-year-old can still pretty much only say little-kid stuff, after all, no matter what face she is making. Oh, hey, the Republicans had a debate last night.
We were promised an angry Jeb Bush; a desperate and assertive one; a pissman for the piss moment. That’s how it’s supposed to go when a formerly serious-seeming candidacy goes in the toilet—dismal poll numbers portend cutbacks portend a sweaty, desperate, go-for-broke show of scenery-chewing—and the newly salty I-don’t-need-this-shit pose of Jeb’s recent stump appearances fit the script. That’s why I tuned in, dammit! To see what happens when seven feet of damp Melba toast decides to pretend it contains a human spleen!
Alas. The plainspoken Southern man’s-man cosplay has worked out pretty well for the Bush men over the years, but down to their mayonnaise marrow they’re still effete New England aristocracy and always will be. It isn’t just nature, either: Jeb came up in the same elite Massachusetts handshaking school that gave the world his big brother’s dull, chicken-eyed agreeability, and such places do not teach young men how to mimic the lax manners and rude “caring” of the common people to whose failures the world assigns actual consequences. Jeb Bush can no more believably perform righteous, fire-breathing fed-up-with-it-ness than he can tie his own shoes; tempering into gentility every privileged WASP boy’s impulse toward stooping to try either of those is the precise pedagogical specialty of Phillips Academy Andover in the first place.
He gave it a shot, though! History will not record this as a great rhetorical triumph, or as anything else for that matter, but on a personal level, Jeb’s rehearsed, painfully uncomfortable dig at Marco Rubio’s poor Senate attendance—“Literally, the Senate, what is it, like a French work week, you get like three days where you have to show up?”—was an accomplishment. For once in his life, he expressed his aggression toward someone directly, rather than by signing off on their execution from afar! That’s something. How much waterboarding do you figure he needed before he could recite this burn without fainting? Probably a lot.
All for nothing. Rubio, nobody’s idea of a savage pit fighter himself, saw it coming from a mile away; he composed himself while poor Jeb apologetically yammered back toward his statesmanly pose. Rubio’s response was the end of Jeb’s campaign.
You are a sad, flailing doofus. I can look you dead in the eye and call you a sad, flailing doofus, because getting your little burn out took everything you had and you and I both know you’ll puke or wet yourself if the confrontation goes another round. Rubio didn’t even bother defending his voting attendance. He just called Jeb irrelevant, turned promptly away, and let the cameras do the work of showing that Jeb agrees with him.
Jeb Bush is dead now. He was doomed already, really—his presidential ambitions entered their death spiral the moment being the answer to the question “What if Jeb Bush were a handsome Mormon man, rather than a congealed cottage cheese sculpture?” failed to get Mitt Romney elected—but Rubio turning away from Jeb was the official time of death. All we’re waiting for now is for him to pull the sheet over himself.
This does not seem to have struck most of his fellow candidates as much of a relief; if anything, at least a handful of them seem kinda put out by it. Donald Trump spent the evening visibly fighting the urge to check his watch, like Morty Seinfeld enduring another endless Peterman anecdote; he only came to life to boast that he’d successfully pressured CNBC to shorten the debate. He’s bored and through with this shit and was hoping to have cashed out by now. Ben Carson clearly hadn’t bothered reviewing the Jack Chick tracts that supply literally all of his policy positions, and seemed confused by the expectation that he’d be familiar with his own prior statements. Screamin’ John Kasich kept ranting at the audience about their failure to recognize the importance of executive-branch credentials; he’d punctuate it with references to himself, but it came off like he’s angry at voters for not positioning Jeb to offer him Secretary of Labor or some shit. Carly Fiorina just made up a bunch of bald-faced nonsense, like she was hoping a referee would step in and disqualify her for excessive bullshitting. Poor Rand Paul looked like he’d just rolled out of bed, and sounded like he wished he hadn’t.
Photo credit: AP
And so on. Leaving aside Rubio and Ted Cruz, each of whom seemingly wants to be president and believes he has a shot at it, and Mike Huckabee, who’s out here freeballin’ his way to the Rapture, the mood was sour, resentful, and discombobulated. They tried, unconvincingly, to channel their resentment toward CNBC and the broader media, but Jeb’s who fucked things up for them. They’re all stuck in this clown show a bit longer, thanks to him.
The thing is, the candidates, too, were promised a stronger Jeb Bush than this; most of them—Trump, Carson, Kasich, Paul, Carly Fiorina, and Chris Christie, by my count— were banking on it. They’d premised their very participation in the campaign on the expectation that a stable, legitimate frontrunner would step forward in the early going, and then they could squeeze that frontrunner for a spot on the ticket or a cabinet gig or a policy commitment to satisfy whichever constituency or an excuse to bail with their brands enhanced.
Jeb was supposed to be that guy, and now he’s dead. You could read the displeasure on their faces: Aw, dammit, this means I have to keep campaigning, doesn’t it? It’s like survivor guilt, only none of these sociopaths is capable of genuine guilt. Survivor pique. Survivor inconvenience. A funeral where the mourners weep for the brunch reservations they had to cancel for it. Jeb Bush is dead, and now all these fakers have to keep on pretending—keep furrowing their brows into stern expressions, scrunching up their mouths into tight frowns, and saying little-kid nonsense in their grimmest scolding voices— until their make-believe party decides which unelectable jackass it’ll pretend to judge qualified for the presidency. Bless their hearts.