I have to admit that I loved reading the so-called Republican insiders’ views on how Donald Trump failed to impress in last night’s debate. They need him to exit stage left (or is it stage right?) as soon as possible. Methinks they doth protest too much.
From the opening question on whether anyone would consider a third party candidacy to Trump’s assertion that they wouldn’t be talking about immigration if it weren’t for him, he was indeed center stage. Did he hurt himself with his base? I doubt it. Did he channel much of the anger of a sizable number of Americans towards politics and politicians? Absolutely. Ohio Gov. John Kasich admitted as much. One fact is clear: Donald Trump is not going anywhere anytime soon. He will be a factor into next year, big time.
My sense is that Kasich, New Jersey Gov. Christie, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, despite his pretty poor performance, may still be in the game for future debates. As will Carly Fiorina after her success in the “kid’s table” debate. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is a master debater but scares the pants off many Republicans. My guess is the rest of the crowd will fade.
And that leaves us with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush – still the favorite of the establishment and a formidable candidate. But his performance was anemic to say the least. One debate does not a candidate make or break, as we know. Nevertheless, Bush’s decision to play it safe, not confront Trump, and bob and weave on Iraq and Common Core, puts him in an awkward position as we move into the fall. He is desperately trying to run a general election campaign and still appeal to the base of the Republican Party, which, as it is currently constituted, would make Ronald Reagan blush. He wouldn’t recognize the collection of extremists on the two stages last night.
Bush may succeed by not engaging with Trump and, for that matter, many of his opponents, but what he does not need is to recede into the woodwork in this campaign. He faces real trouble in Iowa, should he choose to compete there, and this could steamroll into a series of second-, third- or even fourth-place finishes. His $100 million-plus helps, but only so much – everyone else having a super PAC changes the rules of presidential politics these days.
Bush needs to up his game and not play the presumptive inside-the-beltway front-runner, especially when Trump has taken a sizable lead. When, and if, Trump fades, Bush needs to be the one voters turn to, and after last night, that is far from pre-ordained.
Bush did not make any glaring gaffes (“I’m not sure we need half a billion dollars for women’s health issues”), but he did not stand out in a positive way either. He got lost. With this Republican field, playing it safe may be playing it wrong.