Et Tu, Jeb?

Et Tu, Jeb?
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The setting for the Republicans’ latest gong show was the Colorado college town of Boulder. It’s a pretty place—I attended school there and love it still—but its choice as a venue for a GOP presidential debate was curious: Conservatives caught inside the city limits at nightfall risk being carted off to identity-politics reeducation camps.

Perhaps channeling the local radicalism, CNBC’s moderators were rough on the candidates. It wasn’t quite as bad as Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee claimed—have they already forgotten those mean Fox News moderators?—but about the only thing Republicans agreed on after it was over is that television is populated by preening liberal activists.

That’s an old saw, to be sure, but it’s reasonable to question the propriety of asking Donald Trump if he’s a “comic book” candidate—or whether another moderator should really tell Marco Rubio he’s “a young man in a hurry,” implying he should wait his turn in presidential politics. That second line of questioning came from Carl Quintanilla, who asked Rubio about his attendance record in the Senate.

Quintanilla quoted from an editorial in the Sun-Sentinel, a South Florida newspaper that said Rubio was swindling Sunshine State voters— “ripping us off” was the language in the editorial—by remaining in the Senate while he runs for higher office. The debate moderator also mentioned an anonymous quote in a Washington Post story alleging that Rubio “hates” the Senate, a claim repeated in the Sun-Sentinel editorial.

To Rubio supporters, the newspaper’s over-the-top language implied partisan motivations. In any event, he was ready for the question. Rubio noted that the Sun-Sentinel hadn’t written any similar editorials when Sens. Barack Obama, John Kerry, and Florida’s own Bob Graham—Democrats all—skipped Senate votes at a prodigious rate while running for president.

“I read that editorial today with a great amusement,” Rubio said. “It’s actually evidence of the bias that exists in the American media today … another example of the double standard that exists in this country between the mainstream media and the conservative movement.”

The audience applause at this exchange roused Jeb Bush from his stupor, but his response was disappointing. Bush apparently didn’t’ know that he’d been presented with one of those rare moments in life where the accurate thing to say, the gracious thing to say, and the politic thing to say are one and the same.

Bush could have amplified on Rubio’s historic examples. He could have pointed out that even before John McCain ran for president, the Arizona senator had a spotty attendance record and yet still managed to remain an effective Republican voice and national leader. Jeb could have mentioned that while campaigning in Kentucky in 2004, Kerry missed a key Senate vote on extending unemployment insurance—an issue Kerry claimed to care about—and that it failed by one vote. Bush could have reminded the audience that Lyndon Johnson raised the same issue with John F. Kennedy in 1960 and that Kennedy waved it away and voters yawned.

Finally, Jeb could have said that Rubio—who is not a millionaire, as Bush is—is not running for reelection, and will be giving up his seat in pursuit of the presidency. He didn’t say any of those things.

Instead, Florida’s former governor allied himself with the moderator. “Could I bring something up here, because I'm a constituent of the senator and I helped him and I expected that he would do constituent service, which means that he shows up to work,” Bush said. “He got endorsed by the Sun-Sentinel because he was the most talented guy in the field. He's a gifted politician.

“But Marco, when you signed up for this, this was a six-year term, and you should be showing up to work. I mean, literally, the Senate—what is it, like a French workweek? You get, like, three days where you have to show up?

“You can campaign, or just resign and let someone else take the job,” Bush concluded. “There are a lot of people living paycheck to paycheck in Florida as well; they're looking for a senator that will fight for them each and every day.”

Thus did the man many consider the adult in the 2016 Republican presidential field unburden himself of a nasty little stink bomb containing most of the buzzwords of modern campaigning. He’ll “fight” for the little guy, the wealthy scion tells the son of Cuban immigrants. You’re a “politician,” says the man who ran for governor three times and whose brother, father, and grandfather all held elective office. Then there was that strange crack about the French. What did they ever do to Jeb?

There was a reason Jeb Bush took this tack: He’s been carping about Rubio’s attendance for a long time. Jeb’s hit on his onetime protégé in Florida politics—“show up or resign”—predates the Sun-Sentinel’s sortie by several months. It’s also, by the way, a Democratic Party talking point against Rubio. After the debate Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid repeated it.

“Why shouldn’t he [resign]? He hates the Senate,” Reid told Politico. “Why should the taxpayers of this country and people of Florida put up with having only one senator? Doesn’t seem fair to me.”

This is pretty rich, considering that Rubio’s frustration with his first four years in the Senate were mainly owing to the autocratic and stunningly inefficient manner with which Reid ran the place when he was majority leader.

In his debate-night response to Bush, Rubio noted that Jeb never complained about McCain’s attendance record. “The only reason why you’re doing it now,” he added, “is because we’re running for the same position, and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.”

It was a statement that was so obviously true that it just hung there in the air. The CNBC moderators went back to assailing the Republicans on stage, the candidates resumed rebuking the moderators for it, and many in the audience were left with the feeling that the actual adult in this race might be a 44-year-old freshman senator who is tired of the mess on Capitol Hill and thinks a promotion might help him fix it.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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