It was just one of those horrific meltdown after meltdown after meltdown after meltdown episodes seemingly without end that just ended as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush quietly exited the Republican presidential contest.
“Deserved,” was the one word text message comment from a hardened Hudson County operative who a year earlier had predicted that Bush would walk away with the GOP nomination.
Earlier this week, Jeb! (and was there ever a crueler exclamation point in the history of American politics?) followed up the public endorsement of his mother, former First Lady Barbara Bush, with a campaign appearance by big brother George W, the former president and other son of the former President George Herbert Walker Bush, all of whom appeared convinced that Jeb! was a future president.
But not tonight.
Tonight, the Republican primary electorate officially cast aside the Republican establishment, and the recent legacy of the Republican establishment, and the polices of the establishment, and the two most recent Republican presidents who were both named Bush and both took this country to war in the Middle East.
Before we proceed here, we can already feel the discomfort level rising in that always irritable Trenton staffer who doesn’t want to read about presidential politics on PolitickerNJ.
But this is historic – or at least histrionic – and referable to New Jersey in multiple ways, starting with Gov. Chris Christie’s entreaty yesterday to party chairs to “keep their powder dry” on presidential endorsements as the chairs consider how to assemble lines with Donald Trump seemingly in cruise control.
These are chairs who for some time have had a clear and concise understanding of their simple, pre-ordered chess moves, which went something like this: back Christie, then when Christie loses, back Bush – er, no Marco Rubio, because he’s young and exciting and electable and we can duck state Senator Joe Kyrillos’s (R-13) phone calls if we have to, and then… yeah, but Christie buried Rubio in that debate, so yes, Jeb, we’ll back Jeb, just like Joe said we should, and…and… Jeb! just suspended his campaign.
We’ll back John Kasich, that Ohio governor who came in second place in New Hampshire and was friends with the late Congressman Bob Franks, and who seems well-heeled enough not to unnerve the GOP establishment, who got Ken Langone to line up some dough behind him when Chris dropped out, and… and… who tonight limped in just ahead of Ben Carson in South Carolina.
“I like Ted Cruz,” a Republican lawmaker told PolitickerNJ last week, refusing to go public with an endorsement even as he prayed Christie would go there.
But Christie won’t go there.
David Axelrod just pointed out that no one in Washington, D.C., no one on that cocktail party circuit of Republican bigwigs and their ilk likes Cruz. Axelrod said those types are more apt to finally coalesce around Trump than Cruz.
Was there anyone else out there?
State Senator Joe Pennacchio (R-26) said no.
Just last week, following Christie’s own departure from the presidential contest, Pennacchio issued his official Trump endorsement, the second such statement of support of a New Jersey state senator for Trump, following an endorsement issued last year by state Senator Mike Doherty (R-23).
“Congratulations to Donald Trump on his convincing win South Carolina,” Pennacchio said. “the more time, money and effort is spent against Mr. Trump in the primaries the less effort will be directed at Hillary Clinton and Democrats. Some within my Republican Party may still wish for the good old days of Dole, McCain and Romney. Get over it.”
A faint voice rose in the center of the state, quaking and speaking on condition of anonymity.
Have… to… get… behind… Rubio…
It was like a Morse Code message from the heart of despair in the Republican Party.
But Rubio came in third tonight, didn’t he? Or second?
What difference did it make?
Didn’t Bush say he was channeling his inner Chris Christie when he said Rubio was a non-starter for the presidency based on his utter lack of experience?
Rubio equals non-starter in Christie-Bush world.
Trump’s convincing win in South Carolina tonight came in spite of his late week onslaught against, of all people, Pope Francis. New Jersey has a big Catholic population, bigger than most other states, in fact. Trump said W. (who made Christie U.S. Attorney and cut Jeb! in line for the presidency) lied about the war in Iraq. How would these guys turn around and back him?
Where was New Jersey going?
There was once a school of thought that asserted the state’s right – with a primary scheduled in June – to remain irrelevant in this process. But as the party chairmen tonight began to more soberly assess the meaning of all this, Trump, it must be noted, hardly appears to be a public figure whose presence at the top of a ticket translates into irrelevance.
“As the field narrows, it’s becoming clearer that Trump is going to be around a lot longer than any of us expected,” said a party source. “Dealing with him now almost looks inevitable.”
The source couldn’t help adding, as if trying to coax hope out of a dismal observation, “Kasich is sticking around. That surprises me.”
But still, it was sinking in for the establishment, by slow degrees.
Trump had that Atlantic City footprint with the casinos, after all, a Republican source mentioned.
“And doesn’t he own that golf course in Bedminster?” the same source asked, voice mellowing through the shell shock of the night, insistent on finding Jersey guy animal warmth amid Trump turbulence.