Josh Kraushaar of the National Journal suggests that if Jeb Bush hadn’t run for president, Donald Trump might not be a “formidable candidate.” He writes:
Consider: a) Bush’s entrance in the race prevented any other mainstream alternatives from getting attention for months; b) his Right to Rise super PAC nuked the most-electable alternative in Rubio with millions in attack ads while spending much less against Trump; c) his candidacy defined the two poles of the Republican Party, and gave Trump plenty of fodder to showcase himself as aggressively anti-Bush and become an antiestablishment icon; d) Trump may not even have gotten in the race if it weren’t for Bush creating the prospect of a dynastic coronation.
To me, this analysis typifies the efforts we’re seeing to shift blame (or, if you prefer, responsibility) for Trump’s rise away from the electorate, where it belongs. Some blame the media for giving Trump too much attention, as if the press corps and television networks should have ignored the most improbable potential political success story in decades. Some blame “the Republican establishment,” as if a brigade of consultants, lobbyists, and other fat cats has the power to impose its will on caucus-goers and primary voters.
For their part, media members and establishment figures want to blame Trump’s opponents. This is closer to the mark. Months ago, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz should have figured out that Trump posed a serious threat. Instead of “drafting” behind Trump, they should have pointed out the threat the tycoon poses to conservatism.
But there is no good reason to believe that if Rubio and Cruz had attacked sooner, the attacks would have hurt Trump. Cruz launched his attacks in the build-up to the South Carolina primary. They had no effect. Rubio launched his last week. We’ll see whether they resonate; so far they don’t seem to have.
A critical mass of the Republican electorate appears not to care that Trump isn’t really a conservative. It may not care that he’s a charlatan.
Ironically, Jeb Bush was the only candidate who went after Trump relatively early in the campaign. Yes, he may have done so more out of necessity (Trump had targeted him) than prescience or principle. But of all the candidates and ex-candidates, he seems the least culpable.
As for Kraushaar’s specific points, it strikes me as fanciful to suggest that Trump wouldn’t have entered the race but for the prospect of a “Bush dynastic coronation.” Trump entered because he has boundless ambition.
I find it similarly implausible to suppose that Trump succeeded because his stance against Bush made him an anti-establishment icon. Trump can make a prop out of any opponent. He didn’t need Bush to project his persona.
As for “nuking” Rubio, Bush certainly attempted to. But I’ve seen no evidence that he succeeded in tamping down Rubio’s support. Blame Chris Christie, not Jeb Bush, for what happened in New Hampshire — the one contest in which Rubio underperformed.
What’s amazing is that Bush didn’t have enough self-awareness to understand that the party, after three straight antiestablishment elections for Republicans, would not have the appetite for another Bush in office. If Trump wins the GOP nomination, that misjudgment will have wide-ranging ramifications for his party in the years to come.
Bush is one of nearly a dozen failed candidates. Soon, in all likelihood, he will be joined by four more. His “self-awareness” exceeded that of Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum, Scott Walker, Carly Fiorina, Chris Christie, and others. It fell short, but perhaps not by that much, of the self-awareness of Marco Rubio, who thought he could overcome his sponsorship of legislation providing amnesty and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Bush makes a convenient scapegoat for those of us dismayed by Trump’s success. But it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the Trump phenomenon not to recognize that this success is due to the tycoon’s ability to connect with Republican voters and independents. (As to why he has connected, I recommend this post by Steve.)
Jeb Bush has nothing to atone for. However, he is obliged, in my opinion, to do what little he can to try and halt Trump. He needs to endorse one of Trump’s remaining opponents. Reportedly, he will endorse Rubio before the Florida primary. Once he does, he can hold his head high.