Jeb Bush’s half-hearted decision this week to confront Donald Trump is shaping up to be an early political blunder that changes the trajectory of the GOP nomination fight. His decision to directly go after the billionaire businessman runs against the Bush campaign’s stated strategy of risking a loss in the primary to win the general. It’s at odds with his plans to lock up establishment support and carry that through the process. It underscores that Bush is no longer the “joyful tortoise” in the race, as he called himself at a home-state event in July, but the distracted hare, swatting at the annoying fly that won’t stop buzzing around him.
Perhaps the confrontation was inevitable. Trump has been attacking Bush over his personality (“a low-energy guy,” is the favorite attack line), his policies (“he’ll now find out it’s not an act of love,” Trump jibed Bush over embracing immigration reform), and even his wife (“Jeb Bush has to like the Mexican Illegals because of his wife,” Trump tweeted). Bush’s allies defend the Trump engagement by arguing: How will people see him as a tough commander in chief if he doesn’t get upset at the guy hitting him so personally? “There’s no path for success in cowering into a corner and hoping for the best,” Bush spokesman Tim Miller said.
But so far, Bush has been sparring with Trump joylessly, underscoring his distaste for political theater. As National Review editor-in-chief Rich Lowry put it, Bush attacking Trump is “like watching a WWE wrestler get a stern talking to from Ned Flanders.”
A slow-and-steady disciplined strategy from Bushworld has morphed into anxiety over Trump’s staying power. And it's all being done in the name of a strategic mistake: Bush’s biggest miscalculation is that Trump is his biggest rival; the assumption that he’s best-positioned to be the final Republican standing against the businessman. The reality is that the establishment lane that Bush wanted to claim for himself is getting awfully crowded, and the former Florida governor is hardly assured of a spot in the GOP finals. And by getting distracted by the elephant in the room—against his own campaign’s original considerations—Bush risks becoming an early casualty to a Trump campaign that, like a good reality show, needs enemies for its political oxygen.
What’s ironic is that Bush’s “lose the primary to win the general” strategy has been co-opted by his establishment-oriented Republican rivals, while Bush has been reluctantly drawn into the fray with Trump. Trump has mostly ignored Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, whose campaign is content to stay on the sidelines unscathed, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is quickly gaining momentum in New Hampshire and is racking up the type of establishment endorsements that once seemed like good bets to be in Bush’s corner.
There’s also good reason to believe that Trump’s support will dip as voting gets closer. He’s been getting near wall-to-wall coverage on all the cable news networks and Sunday shows. There’s plenty of precedent for better-known candidates to be leading the summer before the primaries, only to see things change dramatically as voting approaches. Few other candidates have actually gone up with paid television advertising, still the lifeblood of campaigns. (To wit: Kasich’s $4 million-plus in New Hampshire TV ads propelled him into second place in the state; Trump’s gotten exponentially more “earned media” coverage than that.) In interpreting polls, pundits are transposing their own expectations that voters are following the details of the primaries against the reality that most voters are on vacation and have been merely entertained by the Trump show. That was the finding of a recent Bloomberg focus group featuring 10 Trump admirers—even though only two said they would seriously consider voting for him. The fact that his support in polls appears to be broad-based with support from differing demographic groups underscores his rise is as much a function of name identification as deep-seated support.
Most campaigns have calculated that going after Trump at this stage is a no-win proposition. As the George Bernard Shaw aphorism goes, “Never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.” The candidates that have taken on Trump—from Rick Perry to Lindsey Graham to Rand Paul—have seen their standing collapse. But someone has to fire the first shot. The fear from GOP strategists is that the first serious candidate to blast Trump will be like a kamikaze pilot, taking out the enemy but crashing his campaign while doing it. That’s why Bush’s attacks against Trump have been so tame and are unlikely to be accompanied by any aggressive ad blitz against the billionaire businessman. But in its place, he hardly has a better situation—wimpy responses to Trump’s taunts, while getting distracted from the main task at hand. It would’ve been smarter for Bush to ignore Trump, and start throwing red meat at Hillary Clinton to prove his aggressiveness.
Bush shouldn’t feel threatened by Trump. His biggest concern should be that the establishment lane he wanted to claim for himself is getting crowded. He’s at risk of losing establishment support to Kasich, Rubio, perhaps even Carly Fiorina. Kasich is now tied with Bush in the all-important Granite State. Rubio’s favorability ratings are significantly better than Bush’s, and he runs more competitively than Bush against Hillary Clinton. Fiorina, with peerless establishment credentials as a Fortune 100 CEO, adviser to John McCain, and fundraiser for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is also positioned to pick off some of that center-right support.
New Hampshire, the most moderate state in the early contests, is looking like a make-or-break test for Jeb Bush. (“You need to be successful in February for success in the later states. We have no illusions about that. For us that means doing well in New Hampshire,” said Bush spokesman Miller.) Even though Trump leads statewide polling, Bush’s real battle is against Kasich and Rubio to become the establishment favorite. The Bush campaign is acutely aware of Kasich’s threat to them in the Granite State, as well as of Rubio’s potential to later translate his strong favorability numbers into tangible support. If the best-funded candidate can’t get past one of his true competitors in a state receptive to his message, Trump—whether he's flamed out or not—will be the least of Bush's worries.