The news reports earlier this week that Jeb Bush’s super PAC is ready to go after his former protege, Marco Rubio, come as no surprise. With Donald Trump hitting a ceiling and Ben Carson risking his credibility and trustworthiness in a fight with the media, the focus is finally shifting to the “real” candidates, and the question of who is going to emerge as the alternative to Jeb Bush in that crowd seems to have been answered, at least for now. It’s Marco Rubio.
Bush aides are reported to be enraged at Rubio’s rise, while the Rubio folks point out, as Rubio himself has, that Bush liked him just fine until he decided to run against him. Indeed, Jeb Bush even said that Rubio had the intelligence and acumen to be president (presumably so long as Bush wasn’t running against him).
Not everyone is in favor of Bush’s PAC going hard negative, with some supporters claiming that such an attack would be “beneath” the Bush family. Ha! The Bush family is about winning, and if the Willie Horton “independently sponsored” ads didn’t prove that in 1988, surely the “independent” Swift Boat ads in 2004 did. These folks have always played hardball, and there’s no reason to think Jeb, as he watches his once front-running campaign lose steam, will do any differently.
But will the negative attacks move primary voters to Bush, or just poison general election voters on Rubio?
One of Rubio’s major vulnerabilities in a general election will be the absolute rigidity of his anti-abortion position. Rubio does not support any exception, even in cases of rape or incest. But will pointing that out hurt Rubio in the primaries — or help him? Rubio missed critical votes in Congress because he was campaigning, but that’s an argument that rarely packs much of a punch. And then there’s the matter of Rubio’s personal finances, but Rubio will no doubt claim any attacks on that front are simply parroting Democratic talking points.
If the Bush PACs don’t go on the offensive now, you can be sure that the Democratic super PACs will go after Rubio with guns blazing and red phones ringing next year.
When the matter of Rubio’s inexperience is raised, members of his camp are quick to point out that Rubio’s time in the Senate exceeds Barack Obama’s. But that is not necessarily a great defense; even many Democrats admit privately that Obama might have had an easier time of it had he been more experienced. Rubio has a story to tell, that’s true, but in the context of immigration politics, his story ends in the wrong place — absolutist opposition — for the overwhelming majority of Hispanic voters. Bush is far more moderate on the subject, more measured, exactly what a candidate should be to win in November 2016, although it’s a different story in the primaries.
That’s what must be most frustrating for the Bush camp. They remain certain that their guy, not Rubio, would be the strongest candidate against Hillary Clinton in the general election. He might be. And the strongest primary candidate might be too ideological, too “hot,” for a general election, for all the same reasons he’s strongest in the primaries. While boring doesn’t work in primaries, it can spell “safe” in a general election.
But the problems Bush has been having this year aren’t really ideological. His aides and their strategic decisions aren’t the problem, either. No, the problem has been Bush himself. He has not been connecting. In debate after debate, in interview after interview, he seems more frustrated than energized, as if he should not have to work this hard, as if his opponents are not worthy of him or have no business challenging him. It’s not so much that Rubio is winning as it is that Bush is losing. Maybe it’s a communications problem, which is what aides are no doubt saying. What else can you say? The one thing you can’t change in a campaign is the candidate, and when there’s a candidate problem that’s bigger than ideology or competence, you just can’t win.
– Susan Estrich’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer