Jeb Bush has decided to stoop to conquer. The onetime GOP front-runner didn't think Donald Trump was worth his time. By simply being the adult in the race, he hoped, voters would stick with him and turn away from Trump. Or, at the very least, voters would ignore Trump’s trolling of Bush. But the decent opinions of mankind did not kick in. Bush's poll numbers dropped, while Trump’s rose. Now Bush is confronting Trump head-on. “Donald Trump is trying to insult his way to the presidency,” Bush said Thursday. Bush is also picking up the frequency of his assaults, taking on Trump in ads, with an online quiz about his liberal past, on Instagram, and in television appearances. “Trump is wrong for the party and the country,” said a Bush aide. “We are going to fight for it. Ducking and hoping he goes away is not a path to success.”
This is not just a frivolous slap fight. If a Republican who is not Trump becomes president, how he or she dealt with the Teflon Don will be the first major test he or she faced. Campaigns are an imperfect measure of the attributes presidents need in office. They encourage superficiality, and the skills they reward, like fancy speechmaking, aren't as useful when it comes to time to govern. But some campaign moments offer a pretty good test of some of the skills required for the job. Presidents must adapt quickly to surprising, powerful forces that ignore the existing rules. That’s the kind of challenge Trump presents. He also offers an opportunity: A nimble president uses a challenge to focus the public mind and consolidate power.
There is not a right or wrong way to take on America’s loudest real estate magnate. But the Trump challenge gives us an opportunity to measure and evaluate. We can assess the candidates and their penchant for action. When GOP candidates talk about President Obama, they deride him for planting himself in his pensive citadel, contemplating and not taking action. He leads from behind. They promise that when it comes to Putin or ISIS or immigration, they will act.
Sen. Lindsey Graham and former Gov. Rick Perry were the first to respond when presented with the Trump test. They attacked. Graham called him a “jackass,” and Perry said he was “a cancer on conservatism.” It didn’t work out so well for them. As Trump never tires of pointing out, after Graham and Perry attacked him, their poll numbers dropped.
Sen. Marco Rubio has taken the opposite approach. He has largely refused to entertain Trump questions. “If I comment on everything he says, my whole campaign will be consumed by it,” Rubio told Chuck Todd of Meet the Press. He’s going to run his campaign and hope that Trump falls of his own weight. In his case, no action is the best course of action. This is itself a Trump strategy: Stick to your plan and execute your plan; don’t get distracted. Rubio may not like the comparison, but his approach is very much like the approach Obama would probably take. Ben Carson has taken a similar approach, working his way to second in the polls in Iowa and nationally.
Govs. Chris Christie and Bobby Jindal have not attacked Trump directly, but have suggested that governing requires more than “simplistic” solutions—that’s the word Christie used to describe Trump’s immigration plan. Jindal used a question about Trump as an opportunity to talk about his experience actually balancing budgets in Louisiana.
Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. Scott Walker have both chosen to hug Trump. Walker has adopted Trump’s tone somewhat, shifting to portray himself as a foe of the establishment in Washington. Cruz, who already has those credentials, has a strategy that amounts to an elaborate sidling—complimenting and associating himself with the billionaire at key moments. Cruz met with Trump at his office, and is joining Trump at a rally in Washington next week opposing the nuclear deal with Iran.
The Bush strategy has been slow getting to its feet, unintentionally confirming Trump’s critique that the former Florida governor is “low-energy.” At first, Bush criticized Trump’s tone. That was too vague. Now he’s making more specific claims that Trump appeals to the worst in our nature, is hawking unworkable immigration policies, and is a phony conservative.
Bush’s coordinated media campaign against Trump shares some similarities with his brother’s successful effort to repel Sen. John McCain in 2000. George W. Bush also thought his upstart rival would fade away. When he didn’t, his counterattack revolved around questioning whether McCain was anything more than talk. George Bush called himself a “Reformer with Results.” Jeb is now touting his “record of reform and results.” George Bush emphasized that McCain behaved like a Washington insider. Jeb recently said, “It’s almost as though Donald Trump is acting like a Washington politician.”
After Bush vanquished McCain, he thanked him for “putting me through my paces,” recognizing that through competition a candidate improves. That’s why the truly nimble and talented candidate can use Trump as a foil—taking advantage of the churn, chaos, and attention he creates to promote his or her own vision. Or more important, offering his or her own vision to the voters Trump has excited. That isn’t a necessity to defeat Trump—perhaps getting reporters to cover Trump’s thin answers to questioning by Hugh Hewitt is enough to defeat him—but it is an opportunity to show voters something more, including that a candidate can seize opportunities that look like burdens.
Bush, for example, could use Trump as a foil to make a loud and proud case for the optimistic, inclusive brand of Republicanism that he says he’s running on. He says that he wants to be joyful and optimistic, but never really shows it. Responding to Trump's claim that he is “low-energy” with a recitation of all the campaign stops he’s hit isn’t the same as actually demonstrating buoyancy in his response.
If the GOP nominee ultimately isn’t Donald Trump, he or she may get there by taking him on or ignoring him. Both are plans of action made after confrontation with an unpredictable and powerful force and tell us something about what the nominee would do in office. We don’t have to rely on the candidates’ promises about what kind of president they will be. We’re getting a little window into that right now.