Pity poor Jeb. The last thing he wanted, in his campaign to claim the Bush family crown, was to get sucked into Donald Trump’s sandbox. But alas, there was no way to avoid it. Ignoring the bully’s taunts was making him look weak.
So Jeb (or, as his marketers call him, “Jeb!”) has decided to hit back. Only problem is, his strategy is punchless.
On Tuesday Jeb released an attack video that features past footage of Trump sounding like a lefty. For instance: “I am very pro-choice. I am pro-choice in every respect.” And: “I believe in universal health care. It’s an entitlement…I”m very liberal when it comes to health care.” And: “Hillary Clinton, I think, is a terrific woman.” And: “In many cases I probably identify more as a Democrat.” And: “(Taxes) for high-income people, it should be raised substantially.” And in ’09, Trump said this about Obama’s economic stimulus package: “This is a strong guy, knows what he wants, and this is what we need.”
Clearly, Jeb is trying to warn Trump’s rapturous fans that their hero is a liberal masking as a conservative – whereas Jeb is the real conservative. But this ad won’t make a dent in Trump’s popularity. Jeb doesn’t seem to get that when you play in Trump’s sandbox, the old political metrics don’t count anymore.
The Trumpitistas don’t care about ideology or policy or issues or labels. What they care about is persona and celebrity. Schooled on reality TV entertainment, they reject conventional campaign discourse. They don’t care what Trump may have said in the past – or even a lot of what he’s saying now. In fact, they’ve come to believe that any candidate’s words are cheap, so the heck with the words. What they love about Trump is his insolently irreverent music.
On the conservative Washington Examiner website, W. James Antle III captures the essential truth of Trumpism: “Many Americans, even those engaged enough to identify as liberal or conservative, much less Republican or Democrat, aren’t systematic political thinkers. They vote for candidates based on who they like or trust. They cast their ballots on the basis of real and perceived self-interest. To the extent that they approach politics in a more ideological or partisan way, it is often through a nexus of loyalties and identity, as much as a specific preference for how high the capital gains tax should be….
“Trump also understands that many voters across the ideological spectrum aren’t looking for a detailed political platform or five-point policy plan as much they want leadership. They want their government, and the people who lead it, to fix things and get things done. They want someone who will fight for them.
“All of this annoys conservative intellectuals, who patiently point out to Trump voters that they shouldn’t want leadership from someone who supports single payer, or conservative activists, who with increasing impatience try to explain that the right can’t be led by a Hillary Clinton/Harry Reid donor. But…The Donald knows that for many people, politics is a team sport. (He) is trying out for the GOP team and has the marketing experience to sell it.”
Indeed, a new HuffPost/YouGov poll shows us that partisan loyalty matters a lot more than ideology. Republican respondents were asked this question: “Barack Obama has praised the idea of universal health care. Do you agree or disagree with Obama about universal health care?” Naturally, less than 20 percent of Republicans agreed. But when Trump’s name was substituted – “Donald Trump has praised the idea of universal health care. Do you agree or disagree with Trump about universal health care?” – the percentage of Republicans in agreement soared to more than 40 percent.
This is the stuff that Jeb Bush (and his establishment strategists and donors) fail to understand. He’s up against a cult of personality; an ad with old policy footage isn’t gonna cut it. And Trump has already dissed the ad in a tweet: “Yet another weak hit by a candidate with a failing campaign. Will Jeb sink as low in the polls as the others who have gone after me?”
Hey, good question.
For some of the info in this post, hat tips to UPenn students Maria Biery, Tahir Bell, and Olivia Neistat.