At an event last month, former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton acknowledged their personal interest in the 2016 race, but sounded optimistic about the kind of campaign Americans could expect.
“I know Jeb and I’m confident Secretary Hillary will elevate the discourse,” Bush said of his brother.
It sounded like a worthy goal, and at the time, the Republican had reason to be optimistic – the event was in early July, when Jeb Bush was still at or near the top of national GOP polling. A campaign that elevates the discourse is easier when it’s winning.
It’s quite a bit tougher, though, when a campaign hits a rough patch. The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel reports today, for example, on Team Jeb tackling a story about, of all things, Donald Trump’s sister.
It started with a Bloomberg Politics interview in which Mark Halperin asked about the Supreme Court and brought up the fact that Trump’s sister is an appeals-court judge. The candidate sang his sister’s praises, but said he’d rule her out for a high court nomination. Weigel picks it up from there:
[Trump’s] quote ran on Aug. 26. One day later, National Review columnist Ramesh Ponnuru pointed out that Maryanne Trump Barry was reliably pro-choice, and once rejected a lawsuit to stop partial birth abortions for “semantic machinations” about when life began. Just 20 minutes after that article went up, Bush’s spokesman and campaign manager tweeted it out, sexing it up a bit to say that Trump actually wanted to put his sister on the bench.
Jeb’s campaign manager actually pushed the story twice, “paging all pro-lifers.”
Can’t you just feel the discourse being elevated?
There’s a legitimate question about whether Team Jeb, and in fact all campaigns, would be better off leaving candidates’ family members out of the debate altogether. Sure, Trump said nice things about his sister, and apparently conservatives have reason to disagree with her, but unless there’s a substantive reason to connect the judge’s views with the candidate’s, it’s a questionable line of attack.
(Bush has no such luxury with his brother, since he’s already surrounded himself with the Bush/Cheney team and identified George W. Bush as one of his top advisers on the Middle East.)
But even if we put this aside, the fact that Team Jeb wants to talk about Trump’s sister at all is evidence of a campaign that has decided sticking to an above-the-fray posture is no longer sustainable. For quite a while, Bush and other establishment Republicans simply accepted as a given that the Trump Bubble would burst; the summer fling would end; and the race would return to some degree of normalcy.
But that confidence has obviously disappeared. The Bush campaign has taken a detour from the high road, not because it wanted to, but apparently because it feels it has to.
Weigel’s report added, “On April 20, Right to Rise chief strategist Mike Murphy told The Washington Post that the super PAC would not ‘uncork’ money to beat Trump. ‘Trump is, frankly, other people’s problem,’ he said. One day later, Right to Rise paid for a plane to buzz around Trump’s rally in Mobile, Alabama, telling onlookers that he supported ‘higher taxes.’”
You’ve heard the phrase, “Never let ‘em see you sweat”? Jeb Bush and his operation are sweating, and everyone can see it.