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.