Things are getting a little hairy out there for John Ellis Bush. The guy who once positioned himself as the unstoppable juggernaut of the 2016 Republican primary has seen his poll numbers sag into the mid-single digits as conservative voters flock to the bizarre spectacle of the Trump/Carson/Fiorina insurgency. He’s put together a couple of passable, forgettable debate performances, and Bush donors are starting to feel icy needles of panic migrate up their spines as they watch their candidate struggle to gain traction. When not actively gaffing, Jeb is busy cleaning up gaffes. And when he’s not doing that, he’s defending George W. Bush’s bad wars and accidentally highlighting how many people his brother failed to keep safe.
Faced with all these problems and uncertainties and unmet expectations, Jeb went on "Morning Joe" this week and, when given the opportunity, began slagging his 2016 competitor and fellow Florida Man, Marco Rubio:
Well, it certainly is refreshing after months and months of dopey gaffes and determined bumbling to finally see Jeb do something that makes sense.
The reason Jeb is still in this race is because establishment Republicans and moderate GOP voters haven’t yet found someone other than him to coalesce around. Scott Walker was a threat to Bush on this front until he revealed himself to be an inept and thoroughly unprepared presidential candidate. But ever since Walker’s exit from the race, Rubio’s numbers have been rising and he’s even surpassed Jeb in the polling averages. Right now Bush has to worry that donors, influential party figures and voters are going to decide that the young, charismatic Latino fellow is a stronger pony than the patrician gaffe machine with the politically radioactive surname.
To prevent this from happening, Jeb has two options: make himself more attractive as a candidate, or make Rubio less attractive. He’s proven inept at the former, so the latter will have to do for the time being. And Rubio, for all his political gifts, is not without weaknesses to exploit, and you can already see which ones Jeb is focusing on: he’s a first-term senator with no real accomplishments to his name, and WHO DOES THAT REMIND YOU OF???
It will be interesting to see how this line of attack plays out. If you look back at the 2008 election, pretty much every Republican and conservative attack on Barack Obama revolved around the idea that he was too young, too callow, and all flash with no substance. John McCain’s campaign produced an ad comparing Obama to Paris Hilton: “He’s the biggest celebrity in the world, but is he ready to lead?” Those attacks obviously didn’t derail Obama, but the notion that Obama was insufficiently prepared to handle the presidency became an unquestioned truth among Republicans and especially among conservatives in the media. Jeb is unsubtly reminding the entire Republican Party of the position it took the last time a well-spoken first-term senator with an inspiring back story first sought the presidency.
And the contrast with Rubio plays to Jeb’s strength as an elected official who actually did things during his time in office. Rubio’s time in the Senate is best remembered for the comprehensive immigration legislation he worked doggedly to get passed and then abruptly abandoned when it became clear how much damage it could wreak on his political career. Since he’s started running for president, Rubio has all but abandoned his work in the Senate and is trying to convince people that while he may technically be a senator he’s not really “a senator.” Jeb, on the other hand, has made his record as governor (which he lies about quite often) the centerpiece of his campaign. The angry, anti-establishment voters who are currently powering the Trump and Carson campaigns may not care too much about Jeb’s record, but the crusty, pro-business Republican elites love to hear about all the taxes you cut and all the regulations you gutted.
What’s surprising is that Jeb is doing the anti-Rubio dirty work himself. One would think this would be precisely the sort of job that his super PAC would take on. When the Bush campaign got started, the assumption was that his super PAC, Right to Rise, would play an outsize role in helping along Jeb’s candidacy. Slinging mud at other candidates is one of the big reasons to have a super PAC – you can let them do the dirty work and argue with plausible deniability that the attacks are not the product of coordination. Who knows… maybe Jeb will keep the gloves on and keep calling his one-time ally a neophyte while Right to Rise explores some of the, ah … well-shaded aspects of Rubio’s political career.