The man’s backed up to his own five-yard line with about a minute left to play. Gotta go long.
Prior to the debate, senior Bush aides began looking into the possibility of making a clear break with Trump – potentially with the candidate stating that, if Trump were the nominee, Bush would not support him.
The former Florida governor didn’t go that far but the option may still be on the table. The Bush campaign has already examined whether such a statement would disqualify him from certain state primary ballots, some of which demand that candidates sign a loyalty pledge declaring that they will support the eventual Republican Party nominee…
Those who’ve been with Bush over the last week say he’s been raring to go. At a Republican Party of Florida event at the Intercontinental Hotel in Tampa last week, Bush went on such an anti-Trump tear that Bush advisers were shocked it didn’t leak.
The good news: This isn’t the most terrible strategic move considered by Team Jeb during this campaign. The bad news: That’s only because some of the others have been really, really terrible. The backlash potential is obvious. If Jeb Bush, establishment princeling, were to declare that he’ll have no part of a Republican Party with Donald Trump as nominee, Trump fans will laugh and extend their middle fingers and other voters will marvel at how quick the elites are to abandon the GOP when it’s having a rare populist moment. The donor class are all proud Republicans right up until the moment they can’t get their way, at which point they’re gone. Why should grassroots conservatives continue to turn out for lackluster establishment nominees like McCain and Romney if donors won’t return the favor for Trump? That reading wouldn’t be entirely fair to Jeb; he’s not saying he’d stay home if, say, Cruz were the nominee, which is to say that this is more of an anti-Trump thing specifically than an anti-populist thing generally. But that’s how it’ll be read, and Trump will benefit. There’s no way for Jeb to avoid looking pathetic either. If he were pulling 15 percent in some polls and had no contentious history with Trump, people might read this as a significant act of principled objection to a guy who, let’s face it, isn’t conservative. At three percent in the polls, though, and having been serially humiliated by Trump on the trail? People will see it more as an act of spite from a marginalized aristocrat who expected to roll to the nomination and now can’t bear the thought of losing to the Al Czervik of the primaries. And on top of all that, it’d make Trump look like a party loyalist by comparison. A man who’s been flirting with running as an independent for six months in order to threaten the GOP would suddenly be seen as a good Republican relative to Jeb, especially after his declaration at last night’s debate that he won’t go third-party.
So why does a “no Trump” declaration kinda sorta make sense for Jeb? Because, from day one of Trumpmania, he and his team have been convinced that they’ll murder Trump if the race boils down to a two-man contest between them. Initially, in fact, Team Bush supposedly cheered Trump’s poll surge because it was sucking up all of the media that more threatening rivals like Marco Rubio needed to gain a foothold against Jeb. The Bush campaign thought Trump might consolidate the anti-Bush vote while Jeb would consolidate the rest of the party, and then Jeb would steamroll Trump. As the jabs about Jeb being “low energy” landed, though, and superior candidates like Rubio got some traction at the debates, that strategy went out the window. Ironically, they’ve sort of ended up in the same place where they started: Jeb still wants a two-man race against Trump, but now, instead of wanting that race because it would (theoretically) be the easiest to win, they want it because it’s probably the only two-man race Bush can win. Bush head to head against Rubio or Cruz would get stomped given how poor his favorable rating is among Republicans. Hence the spectacle you saw last night of Jeb throwing punches at Trump every time he got a chance. That wasn’t just revenge for the “low energy” stuff or wanting to show voters he can be an alpha male; that was supposed to create some “Jeb versus Trump!” buzz today. The more people, especially in New Hampshire, see the race that way, the more Jeb might still have a shot among late deciders as the choice of anti-Trump voters. I think it’s too late now — the real headline this morning is “Rubio versus Cruz!” — but Jeb’s gotta try something. Showing that he’s the one man in the race with the balls to confront Trump (because, er, he’s bungled his campaign so badly that he now has nothing to lose) might be his best longshot play.
That also explains why he’s flirting with a “I won’t vote for nominee Trump” declaration now instead of, say, next July, after the nominee’s been chosen. This isn’t about starting a movement among establishment GOPers to pronounce Trump unacceptable as nominee. Again, that arrogance would backfire with many voters and it would risk antagonizing Trump to the point where he’d re-consider an independent run out of spite. The point is to have Jeb loudly brand himself as the Anti-Trump in the race in hopes that that draws anti-Trump voters away from Rubio and Christie and towards him. It’s a long pass down the field. Probably incomplete, quite possibly intercepted, but at least he’s trying to score.
Here’s his new ad, which — surprise — is all about being anti-Trump, and here’s Trump last night re-pledging his troth to the GOP. In lieu of an exit question, here’s a random thought I had during the debate: Jeb is basically the dad from “ALF” and Trump is ALF. Do with that what you like.
Update: Even for Trump, this is pretty Trump.
— Robert Costa (@costareports) December 16, 2015