One of the best things about adult Halloween is that you have no pretense about what you’re really dressing up for. As a kid, it really mattered that you looked like Lando Calrissian or Donatello or a witch. As an adult, you know it’s all for fun, you’re not fooling anyone, and we all know you aren’t Wolverine, a zombie or a sexy nurse.
It appears, however, that a few of the Republican candidates heading into this week’s debate didn’t quite get the message. Some of them are still putting on their candidate costumes as if their campaigns are alive and they’re still in the running for the Republican nomination. Clearly the former governor from Florida doesn’t realize that his campaign is dead, despite the fact that he’s become …The Walking Jeb.
What really makes you a zombie? There are those crazy ones from World War Z, who are more like ants, or the weird vampire Nosferatu-looking ones from Will Smith’s I Am Legend, but those aren’t zombies that we recognize. Zombies are loud creatures shuffling around in shabby clothes, moaning and grumbling incoherently; usually, they’re not even aware that they’re dead, just desperately hoping to feed on something alive. And I know that may sound a little on the nose, but doesn’t this more or less describe the Jeb Bush campaign heading into Wednesday night’s crucial Republican debate?
Bush entered the 2016 Republican primary as the true contender back in April. He had the name recognition, a huge network, money and a campaign style that was supposed to be a reasonable counter to the angry, racially tinged Tea Party rhetoric of the second Obama term. But while he was ambling along the campaign trail, he got bit—not nibbled or noshed on—by Donald Trump’s campaign, which took a huge chunk out of the Bush campaign in a way that no one predicted. Trump, portraying himself as the everyman who made it big, needed a foil, and Bush became the privileged boy band to Trump’s populist Eminem. And the attacks have worked.
Consider how quickly the zombification of the Bush campaign has occurred. Classic slow zombie walk? Check. The Bush campaign hasn’t been able to shake the “low energy” criticism by Trump, and now even his supporters are calling the campaign “sluggish.” Incoherent mumbling and groaning? Check. In the last few weeks, Bush has made less and less sense on the stump and doesn’t seem to care. He whined that his comments about the new Supergirl actress would “make the news.” Last week he moaned to South Carolina voters that he’s got “better things to do” than run for president, and now his campaign is bellowing about how Marco Rubio gets all this attention he doesn’t deserve.
And finally, a total lack of awareness that he is no longer alive? Double check: Last week the Bush campaign slashed its payroll by 40 percent and let several top staffers go, and many are now working on a volunteer, instead of paid, basis. When asked if this meant that his campaign was in trouble, Bush said these drastic changes showed that his campaign could “adapt” and compete in a volatile primary season. It seems to me that his campaign is still looking for braaaains.
Now, unlike being turned into a vampire or a werewolf or any of a slew of other monsters, there usually isn’t a cure to becoming a zombie. But several political analysts have pointed out that the state of Jeb Bush’s campaign is no worse than that of Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich in the fall of 2012, both of whom turned around by the spring to win primaries. Or an even more consistent comparison is to the John McCain campaign in 2008, when he went from scraping the bottom of the barrel to being the GOP nominee.
Could Bush pull off that kind of turnaround? Perhaps. But he’ll have to start Wednesday in the Republican debate. Bush will need to come alive in the debate in a way he hasn’t before. He’ll need to feed off Trump’s energy instead of just shying away from it. He’ll need to be passionate in answering questions about domestic policy and social issues, instead of just giving wonky, prefab answers. If he pulls that off, Bush just may be able to bring himself back to life.
Considering that Bush once claimed that President Barack Obama had given America a “zombie economy,” and his top campaign manager, Mike Murphy, called Trump a “false zombie front-runner,” it would seem that the Bush campaign is pretty familiar with the zombification process. This makes it all the more sad that, so far, Bush has been incapable of seeing that he’s become one. His is a dead campaign, shuffling along because the donors, his name recognition and his family just won’t accept that he’s no longer alive in this race, beaten out by fresh new faces like Trump and new contenders like Rubio.
If Jeb Bush has any chance of coming back to life, it’ll be in the CNBC debates Wednesday night. He must dominate in a way he never has, and breathe life into every waking moment of this campaign. If he doesn’t, we’ll soon be into holiday season, the time for costumes and zombies will be over, and more than likely, so will his campaign.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.