In the wake of Jeb Bush's semi-disastrous debate performance and a string of less-than-reassuring comments ("My campaign is not terminal!" ) a new and ominous dynamic has emerged. As Bush's chances narrow, word of plans for a bare-knuckle assault on Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has emerged. Republican veterans - many of whom like or were even supportive of Jeb - are voicing anger and dismay that Bush, far from exuding joy, is now on a search-and-destroy mission that will only sully his own reputation and hurt the party.
A senior GOP strategist not aligned with any campaign told me, "It's hard to believe a campaign that started by pledging a message of hope and optimism will end by attempting to tear down someone else who does just that. Nobody is comfortable with where this is headed and I can't imagine Jeb is either."
In cringe-inducing fashion Bush on "Meet the Press" Sunday morning denied ever seeing the PowerPoint presentation setting out the attack plan to label Rubio the "GOP Obama." Bush managed to look evasive and hapless. Does he really not know what his people are doing? And if this is part of the "comparing and contrasting" part of the campaign he should not bother denying it - unless of course this violates the premise of his "joyful" campaign.
Rubio is playing it cool, which only makes Bush's effort look more desperate and small-minded. In Iowa, Rubio commented on Bush's turn toward negative attacks:
"It's part of a strategic decision they've made and they have a right to make it. I just don't think it's a smart thing for Republicans to do Hillary Clinton's job for her," Rubio said. "I can't control other people's campaigns, I can control mine, and mine is going to continue to be about the future of America. And if there are policy differences between the candidates, we look forward to discussing those.
"I don't agree with that strategy but [Bush] obviously has a right to run his own campaign," Rubio added. "I'm not running against any of the people running for president, I'm running for president. I think we have a very talented field."
In the short term, the effort may provoke Republicans to rally around Rubio, as billionaire donor Paul Singer did on Friday when he announced his support for Rubio. As Rubio repeats that Bush and his old-style attacks represent the politics of the "past," Republicans already wary of "Bush fatigue" are likely to agree, rushing to show support for Rubio and openly criticize Bush. The Bush team is preparing for a cash crunch, but that will only accelerate as donors recognize their money is being used not to revive a campaign but to tear down another.
Over time, however, the fruitless attacks will inure to the Democrats' advantage, just as Newt Gingrich's attacks bled Mitt Romney in 2012, prolonging the race, feeding the MSM anti-GOP bias and putting the GOP candidate on defense for months. One veteran Republican sympathetic toward Bush told me bluntly, "Does the Bush family and its donor loyalists want to be remembered for a last act that was spending gobs of money to blow up a young, Latino, charismatic future leader of the GOP? Lots of donors are already expressing concern about going to war against Marco."
Others emphasize the issue is about preventing a proper vetting. "Marco is going to have to withstand the attacks at some point and show he can weather it. That's part of this process," says a GOP insider who has been through multiple GOP presidential campaigns. "But coming from Jeb right now it just looks desperate and taking someone else down with you."
In a rare on the record admonition, Bush supporter Vin Weber told me, "The debate we need is over Trump's positions on trade and immigration, not Rubio's attendance record. And Bush is by far the best one to engage Trump." Unfortunately, Bush shows no interest in doing so.
Richard Grenell, a GOP consultant who supported Mitt Romney in 2012 and has been favorably disposed toward Bush, agrees the petty negative attacks are a mistake. "Because Jeb is running a positive, issues-based campaign, his recent call for Marco Rubio to resign from the Senate is rightly seen as a loud departure from his strategy," he said.
"But Jeb has to be able to differentiate himself and will need to find more ways to highlight the other candidates' weaknesses while still staying focused on solutions." He added, "It is a delicate balance that also comes with a price for both Jeb and Marco. I tend to think it is part of the process; it didn't hurt Obama when Hillary viciously attacked him in their primary of 2008." But it surely made people think less of Hillary.
That sentiment has not permeated the Bush inner circle. Ana Navarro, a GOP consultant who is close to both but supporting Bush this time, denied any concern whatsoever about the backlash. "For God's sake, this isn't a game of Candy Land. They are competing to be the leader of the Free World," she insisted. "Like it or not, going after your opponents while making the case for yourself is part of the process."
The irony could not be greater. Bush wanted to run a "joyful" campaign and escape the campaign circus of petty attacks. Now, Bush has gone from a victim of such attacks at the hands of Donald Trump to a purveyor of negative attacks against Rubio. "We have met the enemy and he is us," is a fitting description of the Bush's team's evolution from high-minded policy to flailing attacks.
Even if Bush could damage Rubio, there is little reason to believe it would bolster Bush. Bush's problem is not Rubio per se, for even before Rubio's rise Bush's numbers were nose-diving. More likely, if Bush did juice up Rubio's unfavorable numbers, support would flow to other more establishment-friendly candidates such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, while more vociferous Republicans would peel off toward Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, or one of the two front-runners.
Peggy Noonan, who channels the mild-mannered Republicans who remain enamored of the Bush family, wrote more in sadness than in anger: "He's not good at the merry aggression of national politics. He never had an obvious broad base within the party. He seemed to understand the challenge of his name in the abstract but not have a plan to deal with it. . . . I speak of his candidacy in the past tense, which is rude, though I don't mean it rudely. It's just hard to see how this can work. By hard I mean, for me, impossible." On background, Bush supporters and donors are now telling the press much the same thing.
A Capitol Hill Republican with whom I spoke last week sounded more concerned about the damage to Bush than to Rubio, suggesting the base - already none too fond of Bush - would leap to Rubio's defense. At a time when Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is engendering optimism about a new agenda and generation of leaders, Republicans are wincing at the petty attacks on - of all things - Rubio's attendance record. The Republican said, almost sadly, "It's just not Jeb's time."
One Republican put it this way:
"People are running for president to lead the country. And leadership isn't about pushing people down, it's about lifting people up, and I don't think we can equate loudness with strength. That's not, that's just not how it works in life. That's just not how it works. Leadership is about having a servant's heart, having humility, having a strategy, working hard, understanding other people's point of view."
Actually, that was Bush speaking about Donald Trump. Now Trump has turned docile and Bush has become the guy who can only "push people down."
Few think Bush will exit anytime soon. And none of the dozen or so people with whom I have spoken in just the last 48-hours begrudge a spirited debate contrasting the candidates' plans and positions. There are serious policy discussions involving, for example, Rubio's tax plan, that should be aired.
But for Bush to go out like this, like a washed-up boxer swinging wildly, prompts growing anxiety and even resentment in GOP ranks. Bush might have been able to deal with grassroots anger toward him or to counteract mainstream Republicans' wariness. But when anger and indifference turn to contempt, it is time to rethink what you are doing.
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