The conventional wisdom of the day is that Donald Trump isn’t the only person to benefit from his astonishing rise in the polls. While the lavish attention Trump is getting from the media has effectively marginalized some of the conservatives in the field, the leading moderate is believed to be the immediate beneficiary of this development. Though he is the last person most of those backing Trump wish to see nominated for president by the Republicans, Jeb Bush seems to be enjoying the reality star’s rise almost as much as he is. But the problem with such conventional wisdom is that while it is logical, politics seldom is that symmetrical. If Trump truly has transformed the GOP race, the assumption that he will help Republicans learn to love the third man named Bush who aspires to lead them could be wrong.
There is no question that Trump has really hurt Bush’s conservative rivals. Rand Paul may still hold onto the sliver of the GOP electorate that identifies as libertarian and previously backed his father, although some of them consider him far too mainstream and moderate for their taste. Paul was already in trouble when Trump announced since the competition from conservatives like Ted Cruz had stolen some of his thunder and made it less likely that Tea Partiers would back him. But Trump’s entry has completely marginalized Paul. To some extent, the same is now also true for Cruz whose momentum has been halted by the Trump distraction.
The problem for them, as well as for other conservatives such as Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee or Bobby Jindal, who are largely running against the government is that its impossible to outdo Trump on that score. While a man like Cruz has spent his entire time in Congress trying to blow up the system from within, even that stance (which infuriates his colleagues) pales in comparison to Trump’s dismissal of the entire political system as worthy of disdain. If you are the sort of voter who is impatient with the way our government works and cynical about all politicians, Trumps non-politician status makes even the most hard-core Tea Party politician look like a member of the establishment.
He’s also had a negative impact on those candidates like Scott Walker and Marco Rubio who were expected to challenge Bush for center-right conservatives and moderates simply because they are being ignored in the 24/7 Trumpworld in which we seem to be living these days. Worse than that, he may be attracting some of the working class conservatives that might otherwise vote for an alternative to Bush, a man whom many in the party think is just the latest plutocrat to demand the party’s leadership as his due.
Since few of those voters who might be attracted to Trump’s bluster would have even considered voting for Bush, that should clear the field for the son and brother of former presidents. Jeb aspires to be seen as the adult in the room and the one most likely to give measured conservative responses to the Democrats and their cheerleaders in the liberal media. If Trump survives the first debates without being exposed as a charlatan with no clear answers beyond his canned simplistic sound bytes on the issues (no sure thing), then thinking is that he will clarify the race in a way that leaves Bush as not only the only moderate in the race but also the only logical non-Trump around whom the party will be forced to rally whether they like him or not. In essence, that means Trump will not only ease Bush’s path to the nomination but actually transform him into the dominate frontrunner that may pundits thought he would be when he first indicated he was running in 2014.
But that logical scenario doesn’t take into account the possibility that Trump isn’t just temporarily disrupting the Republican race. If his success actually shows us that the winner will have to be able to be able to compete with him for the large portion of the electorate that not only distrusts career politicians — let alone political dynasties like the Bushes and the Clintons — but wants a leader who is willing to fight with both fists rather than being content to play the adult in the room as Jeb is inclined to do.
On that point, a piece today by Byron York in the Washington Examiner is highly instructive. York writes about the way Bush responded to the all out attack on him last week by Hillary Clinton in a speech to the National Urban League. Bush followed Clinton at the event. But instead of responding to her charges, even briefly, he simply ignored her attacks that slammed his emphasis on “the right to rise” while calling for an end to ObamaCare or reforming (Hillary called it “phasing out”) Medicare and cast him as the spokesman for the privileged who care nothing for civil rights or the plight of ordinary people. Instead, Bush stuck to his speech touting his accomplishments as governor of Florida and eloquently giving his vision of a better America under a president dedicated to advancing liberty and therefore opportunity instead of expanding the power of government.
It was, as York quoted observers saying, a great speech. But it also demonstrated that he is not the sort of Republican who is inclined to mess up Hillary’s hair or otherwise hit back hard at them. This reinforced the belief held by many conservatives that the Bushes are too gentlemanly and moderate to be able to play in the big leagues with the Clintons. The two clans are friendly, but the Clintons have no problem trashing the Bushes while the latter always prefers to play nice rather than get into the gutter with their opponents and duke it out with them.
Not all Republicans or conservatives are in love with Donald Trump or even like him. His negatives are through the roof even among right-leaning voters and, even now about 80 percent of the GOP electorate is still choosing someone else. But the number of conservatives who like the idea of a combative nominee is a lot higher than that. Bush may think playing the elder statesman is the perfect response to Trumpmania. In the sense that no one can compete with Trump for the title of the most outrageous or combative candidate, he is right. But he’s wrong if the thinks that means the party is really interested in nominating someone who won’t take the gloves off with Hillary and the Democrats.
Is Trump helping Bush right now? Maybe in the sense that the billionaire is hurting the rivals he’s been worried about for most of the last year. but Bush is making a mistake if he thinks the soft-spoken routine will ultimately win over a critical mass of Republican voters. They will probably never nominate Trump but the idea that they will choose the polar opposite of him is a theory that may prove to be a disaster for Bush.