It’s a weekday, which means that Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign isn’t going very well. He’s stuck in single-digit polling territory and his favorability ratings are poor. He’s running around defending himself after saying weird things about black people. His backers, financial and otherwise, are pressuring him to either make a move in the polls soon or be fed to a pack of feral dogs in a Fort Lauderdale alley. It’s always one thing or another for the Joyful Jeb! campaign.
Fuming donors aside, Bush’s more long-term existential threat is Sen. Marco Rubio, who positioned himself well over the summer to eat Jeb’s lunch when the right time came. He has begun to do so. Rubio’s sky-high popularity ratings are translating into improved polling numbers following two impressive debate performances and the late-summer evaporation of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Rubio is poised to take over much of Walker’s fundraising apparatus, too. By the look of things, you might surmise that Rubio is beginning his move to box out Bush as the preferred candidate of the “establishment.” You would be right.
Rubio and Bush are close friends, as most news articles about them over the past year have mentioned. The specific term used most often to describe Bush’s relationship to Rubio is “mentor.” One would imagine, since Rubio is good at national politics and Bush is not, that Rubio may have had more than one “mentor” along the way. But Bush, who had refrained from attacking his supposed mentee this campaign season, now finds it politically useful to maintain the narrative that Rubio would just be another ho-hum Florida collector of maxed-out credit cards had the avuncular Jeb never shown him the path of worldly instruction.
Since there would be no Marco without Jeb, the logic goes, Jeb should get to be president first. That’s the subtext of a new line of attacks Bush has been introducing in media appearances since Wednesday. “I'm a proven leader," he told CNN. “I disrupted the old order in Tallahassee. I relied on people like Marco Rubio and many others to follow my leadership and we moved the needle.” Bush equals leader, Rubio equals follower. Get it? He had more on whether Rubio is ready to lead the country: “Look we had a president who came in and said the same kind of thing—new and improved, hope and change—and he didn’t have the leadership skills to fix things.”
Bush reiterated this Rubio-Obama comparison during an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Thursday. He claimed he meant no insult to his former child-apprentice, now rival, and then offered the exact same jabs. “I think I have the leadership skills to fix things and that’s my strength,” he said. “Marco Rubio was a member of the [Florida] House of Representatives when I was governor and he followed my lead and I’m proud of that.” When Bloomberg’s John Heilemann followed up with a question about whether Rubio “has the leadership skills to fix things,” Bush said, “It’s not known.” And you know who else’s leadership skills were not known? “Barack Obama didn’t end up having them and he won an election based on the belief that people had that he could, and he didn’t even try.”
This marks the beginning—just a trial heat, really—of what ultimately could be a comically expensive battle between the establishment’s top two horses. (More specifically, between their super PACs.) Let’s interpret the new line against Rubio as a trial balloon even if—as with many things Jeb!—it was probably something that he just heard himself spontaneously saying to a cable news personality and decided to run with it.
As with many things Jeb! (again), this line of attack is weak.
You can tell that your new assault may lack the proper potency when it is prefaced with various compliments. That has always been a structural problem with the “but he’s inexperienced!” approach. Because before getting to that “but,” you have to acknowledge that Rubio is youthful, fresh, and charismatic: things that are generally attractive in politicians.
Conservatives of all stripes have expended many breaths over the last six years complaining about how President Obama’s inexperience contributed to his lackluster performance on the job. But the reason many of them say this is because they do not like Barack Obama and his policies. They use that criticism because they use every available criticism. That Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio are doing so well right now—and Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum, and others aren’t—suggests that the GOP isn’t actually looking for Daddy to come along and clean up the kid’s mess. It’s a lot like how Democrats wailed about how unprepared for the task Jeb’s brother was when he sought the presidency, and then turned around and nominated Barack Obama to succeed him.
“Experience” and “proven leadership” haven’t been winners for a long while. Bill Clinton’s 1992 election over George H.W. Bush shattered its potency for good. Experience didn’t get Al Gore across the finish line in his bid against the second Bush. In 2008, Hillary Clinton and John McCain both pounded Obama on his inexperience; no one cared. Over a vetting process encapsulating some dozens of debates and a nearly two-year presidential campaign, Obama demonstrated to the American people that he had the requisite grasp of policy issues to match his strong set of political skills and qualify him for the job. Rubio, in his pitch to Republican primary voters, is doing the same.
The Bushes usually come into elections with stocked arsenals of vicious, often fabricated tricks awaiting deployment. It won’t be long until they’ll be dispatching hitmen, fingerprint-free, to spread rumors about how Marco Rubio has tons of secret anchor babies in his basement, or something. They might as well pivot to those now. The “inexperienced” attack is a loser.