Should Jeb Bush Go After Trump?

Donors are pressing the one-time frontrunner to take off his gloves, but the former Florida governor has more to lose than to gain from such attacks.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

To be a candidate for high office is to be surrounded by a cacophony of advice. So long as things are going well, most of the advice can be politely disregarded. President George W. Bush used to explain why he disliked traveling with a large entourage: “How many people do I need telling me to be myself?” But when things go south, the advice becomes more insistent, more contradictory, and more dangerous.

Right now, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush seems to be getting advised that he should take the gloves off with Donald Trump. (If “be yourself” is the advice a candidate hears most often when the news is good, “take the gloves off” is the most frequent counterpoint when news turns bad.)

In New Hampshire this week, Bush criticized Trump more openly than at any point since Trump rose into first place in the polls. Bush attacked Trump as a pseudo-Republican, a supporter of partial-birth abortion and single-payer health care, and an inconsistent and unreliable purveyor of vitriol whose immigration enforcement ideas would cost hundreds of billions of dollars. NPR quoted a Republican observer’s explanation of the new tactic: “What Jeb is desperately trying to do is find his swagger right now. The knock against Jeb is that he’s low voltage and not willing to fight. The best way to shake those perceptions i[s] to engage against the person who is in the media on a 24/7 loop.”

Jeb Bush may feel he has no choice. Donors have invested tens of millions of dollars in his campaign, and many of them must, by now, be getting uneasy. If the uneasiness intensifies, the flow of checks will slow. Every campaign runs on money, but Jeb Bush’s more than most. He’s hoping through sheer staying power to impose his nomination on a recalcitrant party. The money buys the staying power. If the money dwindles, his fortunes fall hostage to the Republicans of the early states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, none of them a promising Jeb Bush firewall.

So the attack-Trump mistake may be unavoidable, a necessary error to avert the even-worse calamity of having his fundraisers go on strike. Yet attack-Trump remains an error all the same for Jeb Bush—and for two big reasons.

First, Trump certainly hurts Bush, but he hurts other candidates more. Bush’s most immediate problem is not that the base doesn’t trust him—it didn’t trust John McCain either, yet he nevertheless won the nomination—but that his donors enjoy too many plausible alternative choices. Bush needs to hustle the donor-acceptable alternatives out of the race as fast as possible, as Mitt Romney was able to do in 2012, leaving donors with a stark alternative: me or some sure-loser madman. Once the donors are locked up and locked down, the party base will sooner or later have to submit. In 2012, as Bachman, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich exploded on the tarmac, base voters swung to support Romney.

Bush’s trouble is that he doesn’t have the clout to push the other donor-acceptable alternatives out of the race. Real-world politicians quit when they see they can’t win, and except for Rick Perry and George Pataki, none of the donor-acceptable alternatives will look at today’s polls and think, “I can’t win.” So Carly Fiorina and John Kasich and Marco Rubio and Scott Walker will linger in the race, subdividing the big money and waiting to pounce on any Jeb Bush misstep or defeat. Bobby Jindal will hang on too—what has he got to lose?

But if Bush can’t drive out the donor-acceptable alternatives, Trump can. Trump is doing just that to Scott Walker right now. Four months ago, the clever thing to say about Walker was that he was the one candidate who could win both the base and the big donors. That unique strength has proved instead a unique vulnerability, as Walker has been whipsawed by the internal party argument over immigration. Walker—a strong-willed politician, but not a nimble one—has tangled himself in a sequence of contradictory answers. He has tumbled from first place in Iowa to third. Dependent on a smaller donor group than Bush, Walker is also more susceptible to donor panic. Walker is a real-world politician, with a job back in Wisconsin and other life options than the presidency. The candidate Bush supposedly feared most may end as one of the first to exit the race. (Necessary disclosure here: I worked in the White House of George W. Bush; my wife donated—modestly—to Scott Walker’s SuperPAC.)

Thank you, Donald.

The second reason Bush shouldn’t fight Trump: Even if Bush wins, he’ll lose. Jeb Bush is a candidate with many points of vulnerability: personal, familial, financial. Most of Jeb Bush’s Republican rivals will be reluctant to broach these issues in any but the most elliptical way. The norms of American media will inhibit journalists from reporting on them. If Bush can win the nomination, he can rely on the threat of mutually assured destruction to deter the equally vulnerable Hillary Clinton from pressing very hard.

But Trump is not playing by the usual rules. Show Trump a line, and he’ll cross it. He has crossed it. And Jeb Bush is a candidate who needs lines respected almost more than any other.

In the first Fox debate, for example, Trump talked about how beholden candidates become to their donors. Those remarks drew blood. And there will be more, if this tweet from today is any indication:

Why jump into this wrestling match? Trump may well deflate or make a lethal misstep or just get bored sometime before New Hampshire. If, after New Hampshire, the race devolves into a two-way Bush-Trump fight, Bush will surely have the upper hand. Until then, it’s in Jeb Bush’s interest to avoid tangling with a rival who seems to care more about damaging everyone else than electing himself. If he can’t convince his donors of that truth, then Jeb Bush’s greatest apparent strength—his fundraising—may be revealing itself as a nearly equal weakness.