“‘We need a moonshot to the brain!”

Blue-blazered, tieless, commanding, Jeb Bush prowled the central area of the conference centre auditorium and sounded like a wild man.

“We need a moonshot to the brain!”

The question was about the failure of the US to deal with mental health care, which had prompted a moment of bipartisanship from Jeb: “This is something that there’s a convergence between left and right on.” Good god, were we going to get some actual policy discussion? Was this going to sound like a political debate elsewhere?

Jeb, tanned, grey hair in a new Roman style coif, the glasses gone, looking like some technocrat, turned to the woman who’d asked the question. “I mean, this is America.” Oh god, here we go. We’d been on this riff before, 30 minutes or so in, talking about regulation. “We built the Pentagon in two years in 1941!” “We got to the moon in 10 years.” “Couldn’t do it today! Regulations. We need the free enterprise spirit.” Both projects were enormous government ones. Said no one. I looked out the window, where vast vacant lots in the city centre were being rebuilt by the University of South Carolina, an enormous government project. Talk about mental health. “Moonshot to the brain!” Jeb’s head is held high, glowing, with the slight orange tincture of the lamp. But beneath, the neck is wattled and old, and the body is a little slumped. Perhaps the word “moonshot” is echoing a little.

Jeb had been on his feet for about 90 minutes when he got caught on the moonshot riff and up to then it had been, well, Jebbish all the way. Somehow a crowd had been rounded up for a midday meet in this deathful post-city, but it was a close-run thing. Cruz and Rubio gigs are SRO. Trump has queues round the block. Jeb’s folks were ouside throwing ’em in to fill 250 seats, a bunch of ’em given over to a tourism industry conference, like Jeb was the lunchtime stand-up comedian. The Jeb crowd, suits and ties, chinos and business shirts, pearls and tannish discreet Northern make-up (Southern make-up is rouge and so much mascara it looks like Raggedy Ann got punched out). Good ole boys, paunchy and neckless in striped shirts and polkaed bow ties, their thin wives in calvins and high-heels. The Real Housewives of Columbia, South Carolina, playing now on channel 907. “Are you a Jeb fan?” I ask the surprisingly normal-looking young man next to me. “Naw, I’m getting my car washed and detailed next door, got a couple of hours to kill.” Ah, Jeb. Sorry. Ah, Jeb!

We get a warm-up from Senator Lindsey Graham, the “hawkish” senator who looks like the kid from Skippy and sounds like Blanche DuBois. “Yall know w’all uh gonna need ah coymandah en sheef frahm dahay waan, y’hayah?” he says, fanning himself furiously in a crinoline, in my mind. Way hayah, way hayah, and then with some applause Jeb strides in. Striding steadily, not enthusiastically, and the applause is steady, not raucous.  This is what’s left of establishment Republicanism: the people here either know it’s all over or they’re utterly delusional. Which would mean the whole party is.

“Donald Trump’s not a conservative. He hijacked our party. He’s got there the wrong way.” Jeb must know it’s over. He must know. I look for some sign in his presentation. He’s keeping it together. He’s a forceful, confident speaker, sure-footed on policy, light on the Americahrahrah stuff, going in and out of detail. Despite being wrapped up in the exceptionalism stuff, a lot of it is centre-right social policy, funding for free schools and child development, free trade as liberation, states’ rights. But it hasn’t worked so far, and there’s no sign it’ll work here. Jeb! started in at around 7% in this state, which is three days away from the primary (the Democratic one is a week later). He got a lift to 10-12% on some polls after dressing down Trump in last week’s insane TV debate, and the return of Dubya, held in inexplicable high regard here.

But yesterday disaster struck, when Governor Nikki Haley, a Tea Party darling, endorsed Marco Rubio for the big gig. Which should be it for Jeb! He has to get a third here, and there’s no sign he will. After this (and Nevada on the 23rd), there’s Super Tuesday, 10 states, none of which give him a home-field advantage. The cash he’s burnt through is embarrassing, heading towards $200 million, yes, you read that right, for nothing but humiliation. The big donors have stuck by him in the hope that some path would emerge — and were emboldened by Marco Rubio’s “robot” stumble before New Hampshire — and they would prefer to deal with a family that has been bought and sold since Jeb’s grandfather, Senator Prescott Bush, was charged with “trading with the enemy” during World War II (true fact!). But they have most likely tapped him on the shoulder already, and he’s just playing it out now.

Whatever happens, it will be a humiliation for him, and the family, and a visceral shock to the country. While everyone knows he’s gone, the fact of it won’t really sink in until he does go, and then we’ll know that history has really happened this time round. Jeb’s demise will mark the end of an era stretching back to 1988, when his dad got the gig. That’s an era, pre-internet, Cold War, Japan — Japan! — as a threat, China as a mystery, Bob Dole, a WWII vet as a candidate, Bill playing sax — he plays sax! — on late-night TV and being called the “first black president” because no one could imagine one in their lifetime. When he goes, there will be a sudden rush of energy, a freedom. Energy will flow to Rubio. He will suddenly be “the guy”.

That’s if he’s able to live up to it, which is doubtful. The plain fact is, Jeb wasn’t, isn’t, and everything in this campaign has shown that up. Once he’s off his stump speech and answering questions, the smooth and authoritative voice disappears and a plaintive tone creeps in. He talks faster, gabbles a little. All he needs is a rising inflection and he could be a dad character on Home and Away. He is, indeed, stunningly inept. Stunningly. How stunningly? Well, he stuffed up the first question, and it was asked by a six-year-old, a little girl who asked him what his favourite book was.

“What’s my favourite book … well, hahaha, The Art of the Deal” — i.e. Trump’s book. Everyone laughed nervously, aware that this is the one response that would leave the kid out of the joke. “No, no, no … I love to read. Favourite book, ahhhh well, the last book I wrote, read, is actually the Jon Meacham book on my dad … what do you like to read?”. Jesus, Jeb. “I take my inspiration from a book called the Bible, but I really loved The Wizard of Oz. Have you read that yet?” I’m better at this than this guy, my god. My dad’s biography?

In any other campaign that exchange — you can see Jeb back in the bus throwing stuff at staff “You didn’t tell me the little girl had a gotcha!!! Who vetted her?!” — would make the news. But ohhhh, we are a long way from that. In the past 48 hours alone, we had:

  • Donald Trump serve a libel threat, cease-and-desist letter on Ted Cruz, for an ad that consists entirely of footage of Trump saying he is pro-choice on abortion;
  • Cruz holding a presser saying that he would take the suit, and might even run the case himself, taking evidence from Trump himself;
  • Jeb tweeting a picture of a gift he was presented with — a gun, engraved with his name. The picture was labelled “America”;
  • Rubio laughing at an audience member yelling “Waterboard Hillary!”
  • Hillary running an ad with footage from a meeting where an eight-year-old girl says she’s worried that her parents may be deported, and Hillary nuzzles her and says, “Let me do the worrying”;
  • Team Cruz running an ad that “shows” Rubio and Obama shaking hands on a trade deal, which is a photoshopped stock image pic;
  • Trump saying he would “stay neutral” in the Israel-Palestine issue during a TV “town hall”, which is like saying he would burn down the White House on the evening of the inauguration;
  • Accusations that the late Justice Antonin Scalia may have been murdered because the owner of the ranch where he died said he was found with a pillow “over his head” — which was taken to mean “over his face”;
  • The Pope and Trump getting into a war over Trump’s call for a “all, a beautiful wall, which the Mexicans will pay for”; and
  • Much Twitter hilarity a la Trump saying “Well, he’s not a great Pope, there are other Popes” etc, etc.

I don’t think I’ve missed anything …

Given this environment, a top-flight mainstream candidate would dive, and Jeb is in a tailspin. The last two days are going to be spent on a fast tour through the south-west of the state in the company of his mum, the much-loved Barbara Bush. Which may be astute, but it is also pathetic. Jeb is wrapped up in the family romance. At the heart of a country ostensibly built on equal opportunity, extolled endlessly thus by Jeb himself, he can’t get over being a Bush. It explains the more-than-usually icky Leave it to Beaver ickiness: “I’ve got to believe my dad is the best dad in the world …”, “I won the life lottery when I was born and looked up at my mom …”

For all his constitutional fidelity and small government stuff, his policy program and practice is full of “third way/radical centre” targeted statism. The all-American Jeb would be much more at home as a liberal-conservative peer in the House of Lords, where he could relax into an appreciation of his own aristocratic bearing. That option not open to him, he has got himself into a dire situation: well-respected as the most effective leader of the family Bush, he is now on track to replacing Dubya as the family joke and embarrassment. You know this while you watch him, and you know he knows this, and it is a pitiable and terrifying thing to watch. Should he not go after Saturday … I dunno. I think people will simply turn the cameras away. Shot at the Moon, moonshot to the brain.