What Is Jeb Bush Thinking?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Jeb has gone on the attack against Trump. A lot of people think this is a mistake. It makes Bush look panicky and desperate, and is more likely to make him look bad than to damage the elaborately coiffed August frontrunner. Here’s Rich Lowry in Politico:

In the argument with Trump over mass deportation, clearly Bush is right. But the split screen with Trump doesn’t necessarily do him any favors. Trump is such a forceful communicator that he comes off as some sort of throwback alpha male, whereas Bush is such an earnest wonk he looks and sounds like a sensitive dad from a contemporary sitcom. It’s like watching a WWE wrestler get a stern talking to from Ned Flanders.

My colleague David Frum:

Trump certainly hurts Bush, but he hurts other candidates more. Bush’s most immediate problem is not that the base doesn’t trust him…but that his donors enjoy too many plausible alternative choices. … Why jump into this wrestling match? … 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.

And Josh Kraushaar in National Journal:

By get­ting dis­trac­ted by the ele­phant in the room…Bush risks be­com­ing an early cas­u­alty to a Trump cam­paign that, like a good real­ity show, needs en­emies for its polit­ic­al oxy­gen. … 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.

I’ve heard similar sentiments from Republicans sympathetic to Bush.

The other candidates who’ve gone after Trump aggressively (Lindsey Graham, Rick Perry, Rand Paul) haven’t exactly soared in the polls. Trump is like an electric fence that the candidates keep running at, only to get zapped and fall back.

On the other hand, supporters of the strategy say, somebody had to do it—Trump isn’t going away on his own. And Bush risked looking weak if he left Trump’s attacks, which were essentially shots at his manhood, unanswered. Bush isn’t trying to win over Trump’s supporters, who are unlikely ever to favor him; he’s trying to consolidate the two-thirds of the party that dislikes Trump and wants to see the bully knocked down. And he’s trying to reassure his nervous donors—you know, the ones who’ve already poured $100 million into his candidacy—that he has some fire in the belly.

Tangling with Trump also gets Bush back into the headlines, since Trump has hogged media attention, setting up the two-way contrast Bush is hoping to create. Bush’s campaign and super PAC aren’t spending money on TV ads attacking Trump; they’re coasting on Trump’s dominance of the campaign coverage, putting Bush in the story as the anti-Trump.

At the heart of this debate is a larger question about political campaigns and consulting. Bush’s strategy is predicated on a fundamental faith in the effectiveness of a traditional political campaign—issue attacks, oppo research, and so on. His critics believe that only works on a traditional political candidate, not on an uninhibited celebrity like Trump.

Who’s right? We’ll see.