Last night during the debate, I expected more people to go after the national-polling frontrunner, Donald Trump. We are only two months out from the Iowa caucuses, and Trump’s recent comments on Muslims made him a bigger target. The first question out of the chute hit that very subject, teeing it up (deliberately, no doubt) for everyone else on stage to take a swing at Trump. The only candidate who consistently took that opportunity was Jeb Bush, however; even John Kasich passed on a clear opportunity to hit Trump, choosing to talk about encryption rather than the “close parts of the Internet” comment that is really a faux controversy anyway.
At the time, I wondered whether Bush decided on this in the heat of battle, or if this was a new campaign strategy. On Morning Joe the day after the debate, it’s looking much more like the latter:
“It was a commander-in-chief debate … I don’t know if the front-runner candidate faired that well in that kind of context,” Bush said.
Bush again went after Trump’s proposal to temporarily bar Muslim foreign nationals from entering the United States, suggesting that it would damage national security and hurt western efforts to engage Kurdish and Saudi allies in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
“It is nonsense, it is absolute nonsense,” Bush said.
He stressed that position in later appearances on Fox News and CNN:
Bush leaned into that message Wednesday, saying during interviews on “Fox and Friends” and CNN’s “New Day” that the celebrity businessman currently leading the GOP pack is “not a serious candidate.”
“We need a change in direction,” Bush said on Fox of stoked fears of terrorism and President Obama’s foreign policy, turning to his own credentials and noting that he is supported by “scores of generals.”
“I have a steady hand. I’m not going to be spouting off and scaring people,” Bush said.
Will this work? It depends on the meaning of this. If Bush expects to get back into serious contention by conducting a frontal attack on Trump, then no, it’s not going to work. The Morning Joe panel credits Bush with his best debate performance so far, but let’s face it — that’s not just generous to a fault, it’s also a somewhat low bar to clear. Even the exchange which drew the most attention, Bush’s retort that Trump can’t “insult your way to the presidency,” didn’t bother Trump at the time and probably won’t do much on its own.
But perhaps getting back into the race is no longer Bush’s main strategy. With the entire field passing him by and just weeks to go before voting begins in the primary, perhaps Bush and his donor team now see their mission as spoiler by denying Trump the victory. I wondered about that last night when Bush stayed on the attack, and with his aim at Trump clearly being his day-after focus, it seems even more likely to be the case. Bush and his super-PAC have plenty of reserves, and a sustained attack on Trump by someone who has nothing much left to lose might indeed erode his standing. Trump shrugged it off last night, but we will see whether Bush can open up gaps in Trump’s armor … and whether the other candidates follow his lead.