Can Jeb Bush break the Trump spell?

Jon Ward
·Senior Political Correspondent
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Republican candidate for president Jeb Bush poses with high school students at La Progresiva Presbyterian School in Miami, Florida. (Photo: Joe Skipper/Reuters)

A few hours before the first Republican presidential debate in Cleveland in August, a Jeb Bush confidant said that it might be a good thing if the former Florida governor did badly later that evening.

“I almost feel like he needs to get punched in the face,” the Bush adviser told me.

This person was not unduly alarmed about the rise of Donald Trump in the polls. He remained confident in Bush’s ability to win the nomination. But he did want to see Bush show a little more fire in the belly, to stop treating the primary as a polite discussion and instead view it as an all-out brawl.

If Bush were to come away the loser from a confrontation with Trump on the stage in Cleveland, the adviser said, “it may fire him up and get his juices going.”

That did not happen in Cleveland. Bush looked too much like a deer in headlights to get into any scuffles with Trump, who for his part showed deference to Bush, almost as if he didn’t merit or deserve a challenge.

Bush can be outstanding in a town hall setting where he can take the time he needs to lay out his arguments and deploy all the many facts and anecdotes at his disposal. But in the debate Bush had to choose one point among many to make, and then do it in as few words as possible. Each time it was Bush’s turn to speak, he was like a juggler with too many balls in the air. I could see him looking off into the middle distance, examining in his mind the seven different things he wanted to say. And almost every time, he looked like he couldn’t decide which ball to grab next — and in those moments of hesitation, ended up dropping all of them.

Still, Bush was overshadowed by Trump that night, not defeated by him. The four-week period since the Cleveland debate, however, has amounted to a harsh rebuke of Bush’s message and strategy.

Here is Jeb Bush’s core message in every event he does: It’s the greatest time in history to be alive. America is poised for decades of growth and prosperity if we can just fix a few big things: tax reform, entitlements, immigration, health care. We face big challenges, but the fundamentals of the world economy and of our own have positioned us for a brighter future than we thought possible in the dark days after the 2008 economic crisis. The way Republicans move forward is by being a party that brings new people in by reaching out to them, to inspire and lift them up.

Bush preaches optimism, and while he doesn’t come out and say it, the inevitable conclusion of his analysis is that Washington needs more cooperation, not more intransigence, fighting, and inflexible opposition.

And here is what Bush and his campaign have said for months about his path to the nomination: Yes, his last name is an obstacle in the minds of many voters. But over time, people will see Jeb and hear him and get to know him for who he is. They’ll hear his message. They’ll like him. They’ll be inspired. And he’ll win them over.

Enter Trump. Trump’s rise has been an unmitigated rebuke to Bush’s message, and we are now at a point, in the ninth month of the year, when it’s clear that Bush is not winning many voters over, or inspiring them. Trump’s jab at Bush as a “low-energy” guy has resonated, and Trump looks like he is the one having fun, while Bush looks ornery and even at times overwhelmed.

Trump’s message, meanwhile, is 180 degrees opposed to Bush’s. Everything is terrible. America can’t do anything right. The only way to fix the nation is to drive out 11 million brown people and build a wall so they can’t get back in.

“Our leaders are stupid. Our politicians are stupid. And the Mexican government is much smarter, much sharper, much more cunning,” Trump said in Cleveland. “And they send the bad ones over because they don’t want to pay for them. They don’t want to take care of them. Why should they when the stupid leaders of the United States will do it for them?”

Despite this downbeat message, Trump’s style is brash and comedic, trashing the media and even flinging a newspaper into an audience. Meanwhile Bush, with his positive message, has been caught up for much of the summer in the modern-day political gaffe cycle. Work more hoursWomen’s health spendingPhase out MedicareThe Iraq invasion. Anchor babies.

Bush spokesman Tim Miller has run interference with the press for Bush on each of these dustups, which have mostly been examples of Bush’s willingness to speak more frankly than many candidates and really engage with voters. It’s an approach that was an asset to Bush in Florida but has been something of a liability under the glare of the presidential media spotlight. And Bush is not like Trump, for whom controversial remarks have seemed to almost buoy his standing in the polls rather than hurt him.

In person, on the campaign trail, it is clear that Bush is invigorated by the chance to speak directly to voters and answer their questions. But most Americans view the race through the prism of mini-moments, almost all of them now on video and fixated on these slips of the tongue. To observers who aren’t out with Bush on the hustings, he can look defensive and crabby during moments of explaining and defending himself.

“By any analysis Jeb is having a really tough time of this,” said one high-level GOP operative who is of the establishment. “He’s got to get off this Paleo diet thing and eat a fucking steak and have some energy.” (Of course the Paleo diet does allow for steak.)

So how is Bush responding to this? Is he worried that his message so far is being rejected by so many Republicans?

Miller insisted Bush is enjoying the campaign. “I can understand why he wouldn’t. But he is,” Miller said.

The Bush command sees no precedent in history for a party nominating a candidate who is running on what Miller called “a message of grievance,” which is how they characterize Trump’s message. They point to former President Ronald Reagan as an example of a conservative who won with optimism at a time when the country was pessimistic.

On the question of strategy, the Bush campaign insists it is doing fine. Neither the campaign nor Bush’s super-PAC, which has raised the lion’s share of the money to support him, has spent a dime on TV ads to introduce Bush to the electorate, and won’t until Labor Day. That’s a strategic decision that has come under increasing scrutiny and is bothering many donors, but it is something to take into account when considering his failure to gain traction so far. He has by far the biggest campaign war chest, having raised $114 million between his campaign and his super-PAC in the first half of 2015. And little of it has been spent.

But when it comes to Bush’s message, even allies are starting to question his effectiveness. But they pinpoint something about Bush himself, and the way he communicates, more so than what is in his platform.

The problem for Bush is that he’s “speaking to people’s minds and Trump is speaking to their gut,” said Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

“Trump is a vehicle for the expression of anger, and so in that sense, very similar to the Pat Buchanan crusade or Ross Perot in ’92, but with the additional element of some kind of hypermasculinity as the driving force,” Moore told me. “There’s this caricatured picture of the alpha male, unleashed ego, bragging on himself and on his wealth, sexually predatory.”

In a recent conversation with Bush, Moore recommended a book to him called “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion,” by Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University.

Haidt argues that most people make judgments and choices based on intuition and emotion, and use reason to justify their decision, rather than the other way around. He quotes Scottish philosopher David Hume, who said, “It is in vain to expect, that any logic, which speaks not to the affections, will ever engage him to embrace sounder principles.”

When I mentioned the book to Miller he said he thought Bush was reading it. Bush told me over email that he had downloaded the book to his Kindle, “not because of Trump but because I strive to do better, be better each and every day.” He noted that he had not started reading it yet.

In a town hall event with voters last week in Norfolk, Bush seemed to be putting a little extra effort into his presentation. There was more passion in his delivery, more urgency. At times, he used more direct, provocative language.

Speaking of his pledge to position the U.S. for 4 percent annual economic growth, rather than the 2 percent or so the nation is currently averaging, Bush said that this would mean “when they do these polls and ask, ‘Do you think your children will have more opportunities than what you have?’ they’ll answer it as we have always done up till recently: ‘Yes, of course they will because we’re America, damn it.’”

But Bush also made it clear during the Norfolk event that he still views facts and substance as the key differentiator between himself and Trump, not style or an ability to connect at some visceral level.

“Look, this is the guy who’s the frontrunner. He should be treated like the frontrunner, not as some kind of alternative universe to the political system. And if that’s the case, then you’re gonna have a different conversation about Mr. Trump,” Bush said. He ran through their differences on tax policy, touting his tax cuts as Florida’s governor in comparison to Trump’s talk of raising rates on hedge fund managers and corporations. He contrasted his pro-life history with Trump’s openness to partial-birth abortion, and blasted Trump’s support for a government-run healthcare system.

“Let’s have a debate about the ideas that people have as candidates, and when we do I think I’ll do a lot better than Mr. Trump,” Bush said.