With his polling in the single digits and his frontrunner status a thing of the distant past, Jeb Bush had one thing to prove at the second GOP debate: that he was the mainstream candidate to take on Donald Trump.
But Bush’s performance Wednesday night did not do much to calm the GOP donor class’s concerns that they bet on him too early. While his rivals for establishment support landed their punches on Trump, Bush was wobbly and at times overrun by the brazen billionaire.
Prior to Trump’s emergence, the former governor of Florida — an early favorite among Republican donors — was expected to be batting down challenges from less well-financed candidates. That narrative was completely upended by Trump’s unexpectedly deep and persistent appeal among Republican voters. Wednesday’s debate was yet another performance in which Bush was trying to claw his way back on to the pedestal and failing to get any traction.
Bush ditched the “higher ground” approach in favor of confronting Trump some time ago. But Wednesday he didn’t demonstrate that he had become any better at it. His demand that Trump apologize to his wife, who was in the audience, for previously attacking her Mexican heritage were easily dismissed by Trump, who said “I won’t do that because I said nothing wrong,”
Trump also was able to turn Bush’s attempt to defend his record on women’s health back to his suggestion that the federal government was spending too much on health care
“You said you’re going to cut funding for women’s health. You said it,” Trump said, ending the discussion.
Bush’s inability to best Trump or to emerge as the clear alternative to the real estate magnate’s combustible campaign could be summed in the moment where Bush low-fived Trump after making a joke about Trump’s reliable barb on Bush’s “low energy.” This is The Donald’s presidential primary; Jeb Bush is just living in it.
Bush did get the best of Trump on the billionaire’s claim that he would not be swayed by wealthy donors, like the career politicians on the stage. Bush brought up Trump’s unsuccessful attempt to lobby for casino gambling in the Sunshine state while Bush was governor. Trump denied he made an effort to bring gambling to Florida, but Bush appears correct on the facts and won the point.
Bush’s problems date back to before the Summer of Trump, particularly when it comes to his inability to come up with strong, cohesive answer to questions about his brother’s presidency, questions he should be expecting. That was no different Wednesday when he was asked about his recycling of his brother’s and father’s advisors. Before getting to the heart of the question — what makes you your own man? — Bush offered a rambling discussion of the limited pool of foreign policy experts.
“Well, first of all, Hugh, if you’re looking at Republican advisers, you have to go to the last two administrations,” Bush said. “That happened to be 41 and 43. So just by definition, if you’re — and many of the people here that are seeking advice from the foreign policy experts in the Republican side, they — they served in my dad’s administration, my brother’s administration. Of course that’s the case.”
Bush’s strongest moment of the night came in an exchange with Trump about his brother’s presidency.
“You know what? As it relates to my brother, there’s one thing I know for sure. He kept us safe,” Bush said.
The line drew major applause from the Reagan Library’s conservative audience, but Trump’s response — confidently dismissive of Jeb, and his brother, and conservative orthodoxy — captured the dynamic between the two men.
“You feel safe right now? I don’t feel so safe,” Trump said.
As the other candidates jumped in to challenge Trump, yet again, Bush let the moment pass him by.