Jeb's doomed Trump strategy: Bush tries to play mean -- but there's no way he wins an insult contest with The Donald

The "joyful" candidate is finally engaging with Trump. Is someone getting nervous?

Published August 20, 2015 4:45PM (EDT)

  (AP/Andrew Harnik)
(AP/Andrew Harnik)

Jeb Bush has had it up to here with Donald Trump! He's so upset with this charlatan, this joker, constantly teasing him, upstaging him, that he's going to... lob some mild-mannered critiques of Donald Trump in his general direction. Bush is ready to lay out Trump with, with the most viciously gentle slapping that we've seen thus far in the race.

Trump's trolling of Bush continued last night at the same level it's been throughout the race: maximal. Bush was holding a town hall in Merrimack, New Hampshire, where he rattled through another boring ho-hum list of education policy details. "Roughly 150 voters gathered to hear him speak," the New York Times reports, "politely applauding when he entered."

A few minutes down the road in Derry, Trump was hosting his own town hall -- one that he booked at the same time as Jeb Bush's. It wasn't much of a "town hall" in the classic sense, as Trump was speaking in a large auditorium to some thousands of rowdy people."In an apt sign of the enthusiasm imbalance," the Times writes, "Fox News at one point cut away from Mr. Bush, midsentence, to focus on an empty lectern awaiting Mr. Trump."

From there, Trump went ahead and teased Jeb, dear poor Jeb. A collection of lines:

• "You know what’s happening to Jeb’s crowd right down the street? They’re sleeping."

• "Jeb Bush is a low-energy person. For him to get things done is very hard."

• "I don’t see how he’s electable." [Good point!]

• "He was supposed to do well in New Hampshire? He’s going down like a rock."

• "After years of fighting ... can you believe 'skin in the game'? And I thought that was incredibly dumb. As dumb as on immigration, an 'act of love.' It's an act of love when they come in. It's an act of love. Or a belief in Common Core."

But just you wait until you see how Jeb Bush handled Trump. Look at these "measured and thoughtful" swipes against the most uncouth Donald Trump:

Mr. Bush, taking a different tack, was measured and thoughtful, even in his attacks on Mr. Trump, choosing to focus on a record that he warned was insufficiently conservative. “I have a proven conservative record, a consistent, proven conservative record when no one was watching,” Mr. Bush said. “Mr. Trump doesn’t have a proven conservative record. He was a Democrat longer in the last decade than he was a Republican.”

Mr. Bush added, “He was for a single-payer system for health care until very recently — not a very conservative point of view.”

On immigration, he said, “Look, the language is pretty vitriolic, for sure, but the hundreds of [billions] it costs to implement his plans is not a conservative plan.”

Oh god, going on about the cost of the wall. Do the people who want the wall really care about the cost of the wall? It could cost ten trillion dollars and they wouldn't care. They want their wall, so badly. Besides: Mexico is going to pay for it after Trump gives them a cold stare-down.

Bush's team went ahead and publicized his criticisms of Trump on Twitter, too.

[embedtweet id=634154396310470656]

This is sad. There is no way that a "low-energy person" like Jeb Bush is ever going to beat Donald Trump in an insult contest. The way that Team Jeb can take down Trump is through his $100 million super PAC, of course, which will perform all the necessary dirty work that their boob of a candidate is constitutionally incapable of doing himself.

But this is an interesting strategic turning point in the race: Bush and his handlers appear to have made the determination, finally, that they should engage Donald Trump's hilarious nonsense. Trump's rise confused Bush -- understandably -- and Jeb figured that he'd be better off just ignoring it. Now Trump's demonstrated surprising staying power, and Jeb Bush is starting to get at least a little bit worried.

We don't deserve this much fun, but we'll take it.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

MORE FROM Jim Newell

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2016 Elections Donald Trump Editor's Picks Jeb Bush New Hampshire Town Halls