How much longer can Jeb Bush maintain that strained smile?
He promised to wage a “joyful” campaign for president, but anybody can see these are not joyous days on the campaign trail for Florida’s former governor. Bush’s taut smile-smirk looked positively painful Thursday on Good Morning America.
“He’s also called you ‘low energy.’ A ‘stiff.’ Says you’re ‘a joke on immigration.’ ‘The last thing we need is another Bush.’ Why do you think he’s out to get you?” George Stephanopoulos asked the no-longer presumed Republican frontrunner about Donald Trump.
Bush has started punching back — “Trump is trying to insult his way into the presidency,” he told Stephanopoulos — but this is not the role he expected to play in the primary. It’s not one he is accustomed to, and, so far, not one he’s especially good at.
People who have closely watched Jeb Bush’s political career can’t help but see the parallel to Bush’s only other tough campaign: 1994, when he lost to Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles.
“It’s been 20 years since Jeb Bush has been punched in the nose, and that was by Lawton Chiles,” said former legislator Dan Gelber, a Miami Democrat.
“I think he looks so uncomfortable because he’s not used to this. He’s not used to being on the business end of a bully. When you’re the son and brother of a president, when your grandfather was a U.S. senator, nobody is bullying you in grade school. Nobody was bullying him at Andover. He’s never had a boss pick on him,” Gelber said. “The first guy to pick on him was Lawton Chiles, and now it’s Donald Trump.”
In interviews and on social media, Trump mocks Bush constantly and mercilessly.
“Jeb Bush never uses his last name on advertising, signage, materials etc,” Trump tweeted. “Is he ashamed of the name BUSH? A pretty sad situation.”
Twenty one years ago, Chiles initially looked like a low-energy underdog. More with folksy charm than Trumpish bluster, Chiles managed to beat Bush by hitting below the belt and treating him with utter contempt. Chiles famously left Bush flummoxed in a debate shortly before Election Day by declaring, “The old he-coon walks just before the light of day.”
It was code language: Jeb Bush is a rich, punk outsider who is not one of us.
“This is not his style of fight,” J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich, who helped lead that 1994 Bush campaign, said of the recent Trump vs. Bush back and forth. “But hopefully the significant difference between 1994 and now is that was his first run for office. He has Churchillian eloquence today as compared to back then.”
Bush easily won in 1998 against Buddy MacKay and in 2002 against Bill McBride, but he overwhelmingly outspent those candidates and both ran what were widely viewed as weak campaigns for governor.
“I see Jeb doing a lot of things in this campaign that he did in ’94 — not responding early on to some of Trump’s attacks and being dismissive of him, or stumbling over his own words, like he did in ’94, when he said he’d do ‘probably nothing’ for African-Americans,” said Brian Crowley, who covered all three Bush gubernatorial races for the Palm Beach Post.
In 1994, Bush didn’t expect Florida’s public campaign finance system to enable Chiles to outspend him in the closing weeks of the campaign. He was unprepared for some of the Democrats’ dubious attacks, notably the false claim that Bush and running mate Tom Feeney opposed Medicare and Social Security.
This race also has worked out far differently than Bush and his team planned.
Early on, they telegraphed intentions to raise $100 million to scare off most or all credible challengers. They raised the money, and scared no one. He faces more than 15 credible opponents.
Bush talked about eschewing petty, negative campaigning in favor of an optimistic and substantive campaign.
But last month, Bush’s high-minded super PAC dispatched a plane to fly over Trump’s rally in Alabama with a banner that said: “Trump 4 higher taxes, Jeb 4 prez.” This week, Bush’s substance-oriented campaign denounced Trump as “a germophobe when it comes to shaking hands.”
So much for being the candidate to “lift our hearts.”
“It has got to be disconcerting to him, because truthfully it’s disconcerting to me and disconcerting to everybody I know, that a bombastic, demagogic, phony like Trump has to be dealt with as if he were a real threat to be president of the United States,” said Stipanovich.
Sarasota developer Pat Neal, a former legislator and top Republican fundraiser, was two years behind Trump in business school at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He says Trump was more or less the same guy more than 45 years ago: “Just a rich, obnoxious, high-roller.”
A Bush supporter, Neal thinks the former governor can take command without sullying himself in the process.
“I’d like to see him engage Trump in a discussion as to what is the future of our nation. Because Donald Trump hasn’t really talked about that at all. He’s talked about what he’s against or what’s wrong, in a non-substantive way,” Neal said.
“Jeb Bush is particularly qualified to engage Trump on the issues.... It’s impossible to find any political philosophy or public policy goals [for Trump]. I think it’s all about Donald Trump. But as he seems to be popular it seems very destructive and what I hate is the message it sends as to what the Republican Party is. We can’t be the anti-immigration party.”
Trump is comfortably leading every other Republican in polls nationally and in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. The good news for Bush is that even while he’s losing ground, the media is treating the race as mainly Bush vs. Trump.
In 2012, Mitt Romney showed how a lavishly funded establishment favorite can take out insurgent challengers. But Romney never faced a force like Trump, and Romney never personified the past nearly as much as Bush does.
CNN hosts the next GOP debate on Sept. 16, and Bush’s performance may tell us volumes about his staying power. Tough primaries usually make candidates stronger, and Bush should look to 1994 for inspiration.
That’s when a sluggish, political dinosaur facing an unexpectedly strong challenge from a cocky political newcomer found himself on the ropes. He dug deep, and came roaring back.
Bush needs to find his inner Lawton Chiles.
Contact Adam C. Smith at email@example.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.