Jeb Bush on Monday challenged Republican front-runner Donald Trump to a one-on-one debate.
Speaking to a gathering at the Forum Club in Palm Beach, Fla., Bush was asked by the moderator what he would say to Trump if he were to walk in the room at that moment.
“Donald, I’ll take you on one-on-one in a debate, any time, any place,” Bush said. “You name it and I’ll do it.”
It may be too late: Other campaigns appear to have counted him out altogether. But, in extensive interviews over the past week, aides to Mr. Bush and important allies described a long-shot plan to pull off what seems all but impossible: winning the Republican nomination for president…
In late 2015, Mr. Bush called Donald J. Trump “a jerk,” “unhinged” and a “chaos candidate.”
Expect more of the same in 2016, when Mr. Bush plans to aim his most aggressive attacks largely at Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton. Though he was initially slow to take on Mr. Trump, the real estate billionaire turned politician has proved a useful foil. Mr. Bush, the former Florida governor, has cast himself as the only Republican strong enough to stand up to Mr. Trump…
“We’re prepared for a long process and think Jeb’s proven judgment, experience and vision sets up a clear contrast to Donald Trump,” said Paul Lindsay, a Right to Rise spokesman.
The idea that Bush is the only candidate brave enough to take on Trump is a theme strongly embraced by his campaign and supporters in recent days. The campaign has released several slickly produced anti-Trump videos — including one released Monday that faults Rubio, Cruz and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for failing to confront Trump. When Trump accused Bush on Twitter of distorting his statements, the Bush campaign replied later with a web-only video to bolster his points…
“It’s important to stand up against Donald Trump. It’s a risky strategy, but he does not represent the values of the vast majority of the party and, frankly, I wish the [Republican National Committee] didn’t feel like it needs to be so neutral,” said William Kunkler, a Chicago-based businessman and Bush bundler. “I think we’ve got to write rules that if someone behaves this way, you disqualify yourself.”
Another Bush bundler, who requested anonymity to discuss campaign strategy, said that “conventional wisdom for a long time was don’t bash Trump because it would hurt you. Well, Trump has thumped Bush enough, the poor bastard, that by hitting back it might just move his numbers up. This may be less about bringing down Trump’s numbers but instead to bring Jeb’s numbers up because he’s standing up to the guy. And nobody else is trying this. He’s showing that he’s not a low-energy, let-the-bully-get-away-with-it kind of guy.”
Donlevie told Bush that he had voted for his father and his brother twice each, and that he had started the race with “a solid feeling” about the man who hopes to be the third member of his family elected to the White House. But his confidence in Jeb Bush had slipped.
Donlevie told Bush that he has been wavering in whether to support Bush, Kasich or Christie. Bush told him not to doubt his commitment.
“First of all, I bring it every day. This is who I am. I’m going to out-campaign people. I can promise you that,” Bush said. “Don’t worry about the energy thing. I can outwork everybody running, and I’m doing it.”…
“It’s not the energy thing that Donald Trump talks about. It’s more a passion,” he said of Bush in an interview afterward. “Maybe he always had it. I came out of this feeling pretty good about him again.”
The low-energy label has so dogged Mr. Bush that his campaign strategy, once predicated on his political pedigree, policy mastery and stewardship of what was the nation’s fourth most populous state, now seems almost exclusively built around shedding it.
His team has been showing voters just how hard Mr. Bush is willing to work by having him grind through a packed schedule of public events — giving speech after speech, answering questions for nearly an hour and sticking around to shake every hand and grin for every selfie.
Mr. Bush has also tried to summon vigor with gentle profanity (think “damn”), deadpanned that he ate nails for breakfast and even joked about his energy levels. (At an early debate, asked to select a Secret Service code name, Mr. Bush chose “Eveready,” before saying, “It’s very high energy, Donald.”)…
Mr. Trump has said even he was impressed with his insult’s pithy memorability. “Yeah, that’s a once in a decade,” he told Business Insider.
As the first voting nears, however, the former Florida governor says he remains “an optimist about the mission I’m on, and an optimist about our country.” In an interview Tuesday, Mr. Bush said voters rarely ask him what he derides as “process questions, hardly ever. People don’t say, ‘How are you going to win?’ or ‘How are you doing with the left-handed Albanian vote?’ or ‘Why is Donald Trump winning?’ No one cares.” He says the Americans he meets wonder about the economy, and retirement, and health care, and now national security and world affairs—and thus the primaries may be taking a more substantive turn.
“There’s no tangible evidence of that necessarily in the head-to-head polling, but polling is the last thing to go. But I see it, and I sense it, and people want to know: ‘Do you have fortitude?’” Mr. Bush says. “These are serious times. We need a leader that has a steady hand and has a clear vision. Whether that’s me or not, I’m going to work hard to make it so.”…
As for Mr. Trump, Mr. Bush unloads. “The people following and covering the campaigns? The cable shows? They’re obsessed with Trump, and all they care about is what effect this disparaging remark will have on the campaign—it’s all about nothing. It changes with each week. He’s Pavlov and they’re the dog, basically. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
But Bush believes that [support for Trump’s travel ban on Muslims] will change by the time actual voting rolls around in February.
“In a month from now they won’t [agree]. That’s the point,” Bush said. “The point is that we’re living in this reality-TV kind of political environment, where [Trump] fills the space by saying outrageous things. People based on their emotions will express support for the sentiment, not necessarily the specifics, because there are none, and then he’ll backtrack. And he’ll move on to the next thing, and he fills the space.”
“I think the emotion of the here and now will subside,” Bush continued. “Are people scared about the national security interests of our country being violated because of a lax immigration system or a visa waiver program that wasn’t designed for people being radicalized? Yes, they’re scared, and the job of a president — or a candidate, for that matter — isn’t to scare them more; it’s to give them solutions, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”…
“I would argue that Donald Trump is in fact a creature of Barack Obama,” he continued. “But for Barack Obama, Donald Trump’s effect would not be nearly as strong as it is. We’re living in a divided country right now, and we need political leaders, rather than continuing to divide as both President Obama and Donald Trump [do], to unite us.”
“He doesn’t have to win until he gets to Nevada and Super Tuesday. He’s the one person with the ties to the establishment and the organization in every state. There are Bush people in every state, whether it be for the father Bush, the younger Bush or Jeb,” Thompson says. “Other candidates have to start showing victories in Iowa and New Hampshire. Bush doesn’t have to have that. He’s got the luxury he’s got enough money to continue advertising. Jeb doesn’t have to win the first three states.”…
A top fundraiser for the super PAC supporting Bush, Right to Rise USA, laments that his group’s $30 million ad blitz hasn’t moved the needle.
“Our numbers don’t look great,” he concedes on the condition of anonymity. “I see our ads out there but it hasn’t moved the numbers. We’ve got to start doing a whole lot better than we have with polling.”…
Nonetheless, Thompson says Super Tuesday – the March 1 set of primaries set mostly in the south – is when “Bush will shine” due to his ability to advertise in many markets at one time.
After 2005, when George ran into problems, speculations were heard that Jeb would have been different (and better); after 2008, when the party lost power, articles ran saying that Jeb, if not for his surname, would have been the party’s front-runner in 2012. Much of this had been said in an underhanded way to belittle his brother. But it helped to establish the theory of Jeb as a light hidden under a bushel, the bushel in this case being his family. Now the light is revealed, and the family name is the least of his problems, suggesting that somehow in its repetition this story has been gotten wrong.
Since his term ended in 2006, the once very successful Florida governor has committed malpractice many times over, not only alienating conservative voters on disputes over issues but showing contempt for them, viewing them less as constituents to be persuaded than as obstacles to be overcome. Overcome, as it happened, with money — tons of it, raised from people who had given to his family since before1980, now giving to their third persons and fifth runs for president — meant to run over the children of pastors and immigrants, just the right thing to appeal to a country suspicious of privilege that did not want a Bush-Clinton duel again…
Since his poll numbers were high until he started campaigning, can anyone doubt that a forceful, articulate, coherent Jeb Bush would have been treated quite differently? The problem with Jeb Bush isn’t the “Bush” part of the story. The problem with “Jeb Bush” is “Jeb.”
So, kneecap Rubio in Iowa to hurt his chances in New Hampshire; take down fellow permanent New Hampshire lodgers Christie and Kasich in New Hampshire itself; and then leave the Granite State as the designated establishment candidate around whom moderates can rally before losing to Donald Trump or Sen. Ted Cruz. This looks an awful lot like an execution of the Murphy plan floated to Politico a few weeks ago: “[S]pend the bulk of the $75 million to carpet bomb Rubio, Cruz, Carson, Chris Christie—everyone but Trump. The thinking: Making the race into a binary choice between Bush and Trump might be the only way a majority of primary voters go with Bush.”…
May we point out just how sad this strategy is? It’s not Murphy’s fault, entirely, that Bush has proven to be an inept campaigner who’s unable to build traction anywhere. His job is to come up with some strategy to get this boob of a candidate through the primaries, and if step one of that strategy is something as hilarious as “spend lots of money to make sure Marco Rubio doesn’t finish third in Iowa,” well, at least one can admire Murphy’s professional loyalty to a doomed cause.
Let’s blame the stupid Bush donors instead, the dolts who gave this guy $100 million upfront without asking for so much as a single demonstration of political skill in a 17-man, 2015 political environment. In September, I asked if the donor class had created a monster in Bush: a weak candidate with too much pride and money who would get in the way of a more viable candidate like Rubio or even, at this point, Christie. This is exactly what his super PAC is now doing. It would—even now!—be foolish to completely rule out Bush’s chance of winning the nomination, simply because of all that money and the breadth of his national organization. But it’s a slim chance, and it requires the total destruction of every other candidate whom the party establishment could tolerate.
If you were wagering on the Republican race, Jeb Bush is the best “value bet.” Everyone thinks he’s toast. But he still has a real shot.
As the panic over a Trump- or Cruz-led party putsch takes hold, Jeb can remind donors and even the conservative movement that he also hails from Florida. He can remind them that unlike Rubio, Christie, or Kasich, his super PACs are still absolutely loaded, and likely far more willing to spend their cash than Trump will be if the primary turns into a spending contest…
Jeb’s strategy is straightforward: Continue to attack Trump directly. Doing so not only improves perceptions about Jeb’s character and toughness, it also positions him to get some credit for any underperformance on the part of Trump, a solid bet considering Trump’s popularity comes from groups that tend to have lower-than-average engagement in the political process. Call it a media bias for the establishment, or the bias toward a dramatic story. But any underperformance will be counted as a double-disappointment for Trump. Any time Jeb outpaces expectations, he’ll get double the credit. Jeb as the man who finally tamped down the Trump revolt is a much better story for Jeb than the Bush who bullied everyone from end to end with the money of other rich men.
Let Cruz, Rubio, Fiorina, Carson, and Christie battle each other for now. Jeb just has to go after Trump relentlessly, even when it looks futile. After the summer, fall, and winter of The Donald, after the non-aggression pact between Cruz and Trump, the party simply needs a well-connected, well-funded Floridian Bush with nothing left to lose but $100 million of a super PAC’s cash on hand.