Jeb Bush, comeback kid?
With no other viable establishment alternative, the GOP may yet turn to Jeb
At least, that's the conventional wisdom, and has been for a few months. The man who would be America's third President Bush in as many decades never quite had a good night in the Republican debates. His polls numbers have continued to stagnate, and in some cases, plummet. Bush's initial blitz may have scared away Mitt Romney, but nobody else is frightened of him. Donald Trump calls him a "nice guy" in a way that seems designed to torture him. We haven't even gotten to Bush's heresies on immigration and education policy — that's how secure his rivals and the media are in the knowledge that he is defeated. And so we just wait for the Republican establishment to coalesce around some other acceptable presidential candidate.
Except, we've been waiting for months, and it is not happening. Marco Rubio is just not catching fire in national polls or in Iowa and New Hampshire specifically. The Rubio moment in the media has been going on for at least a month on the logic that Rubio is acceptable to the Republican establishment and to many movement conservatives. He provides a young, Latino, telegenic, forward-looking contrast to Hillary Clinton. He even hails from Florida! And yet, he's stuck at 10 to 12 percent, everywhere. Meanwhile, Chris Christie has gained a few points in New Hampshire. So has John Kasich.
If you were wagering on the Republican race, Jeb Bush is the best "value bet." Everyone thinks he's toast. But he still has a real shot.
As the panic over a Trump- or Cruz-led party putsch takes hold, Jeb can remind donors and even the conservative movement that he also hails from Florida. He can remind them that unlike Rubio, Christie, or Kasich, his super PACs are still absolutely loaded, and likely far more willing to spend their cash than Trump will be if the primary turns into a spending contest. Trump is a candidate many Republicans and conservative mandarins cannot abide. His victory would be a rebuke to them. Jeb has the resources and the reach within the party apparatus to grind out a race with Trump.
Make no mistake: It's better to be in Trump's position than Bush's. Trump is lapping the field in the national polls just a few weeks out from the first contests. But comeback stories are just as compelling as end-to-end runs of dominance.
Eight years ago, on the night of the Iowa caucuses, John McCain placed third — well, practically tied for third, with Fred Thompson. The Arizona senator, whose campaign had been on life support just months earlier, won about 12 percent of the caucus-goers' support, well behind Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney at 30 and 27 percent, respectively. McCain was somewhat unjustifiably declared the comeback kid by the media. He went on to narrowly defeat Romney in New Hampshire, and then was on a path to the nomination. He had risen from the dead. It was a story everyone loved.
Fittingly, Jeb likes to cite McCain's comeback when talking to reporters. Other analysts have compared his path to the nomination as similar to that of John Kerry's in 2004. Wait for the more popular, media-savvy candidates to tear each other apart and then look presidential enough for the party consensus to rally around you. Comebacks do happen.
Jeb's strategy is straightforward: Continue to attack Trump directly. Doing so not only improves perceptions about Jeb's character and toughness, it also positions him to get some credit for any underperformance on the part of Trump, a solid bet considering Trump's popularity comes from groups that tend to have lower-than-average engagement in the political process. Call it a media bias for the establishment, or the bias toward a dramatic story. But any underperformance will be counted as a double-disappointment for Trump. Any time Jeb outpaces expectations, he'll get double the credit. Jeb as the man who finally tamped down the Trump revolt is a much better story for Jeb than the Bush who bullied everyone from end to end with the money of other rich men.
Let Cruz, Rubio, Fiorina, Carson, and Christie battle each other for now. Jeb just has to go after Trump relentlessly, even when it looks futile. After the summer, fall, and winter of The Donald, after the non-aggression pact between Cruz and Trump, the party simply needs a well-connected, well-funded Floridian Bush with nothing left to lose but $100 million of a super PAC's cash on hand.