Jeb's Defense of His Brother Deflates Trump's Balloon

Story Stream
recent articles

If the Donald Trump balloon ever falls to earth, history may record that it was a pinprick by Jeb Bush at this week’s Republican debate that began deflating it.

It happened during a testy exchange in which Trump dismissively blamed former President George W. Bush for the current mess in which Republicans now find the United States. 

“Your brother’s administration gave us Barack Obama, because it was such a disaster,” Trump snapped at Bush, stirring a passionate response that had been previously lacking.

“You know what?” Bush said. “As it relates to my brother, there’s one thing I know for sure: he kept us safe.”

Trump’s remark had produced a gasp. Bush’s reply was greeted with loud applause from an audience of mostly establishment Republicans that included California’s last two GOP governors, Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger. This audience, in which I was in the ninth row, was not a Trump crowd, as could be ascertained by its appreciation of Carly Fiorina’s effective put-downs of The Donald. But it was the attack on the former president that most stirred the crowd’s juices.

Unnoticed by Trump and many Democrats, George W. Bush is now more popular than when he retired in 2009 in the midst of a sagging economy and the Iraq War. Recent polls gave Bush higher favorability ratings than Obama or Hillary Clinton. Among Republicans, according to a Gallup survey, 84 percent approve of Bush.

The establishment crowd at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library also valued experience more than the public does. As one audience member noted at a reception afterward, Ronald Reagan had been governor of California for eight years before he became president. 

This appreciation of experience might have inclined the audience toward one of the seven sitting or former governors among the 15 candidates. Instead, judging by the applause, the library audience most appreciated the candidates who made a hit with home viewers:  Fiorina and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. 

Many in the audience clearly had sympathy for Bush, whose campaign performance up to now has been a notable disappointment. Bush was better than in the first debate, but debates aren’t his thing. Apart from the “he-kept-us-safe” riposte, Bush seemed pained by having to play defense against Trump (and others) and answer what he clearly considers baseless charges. Going into the campaign, Bush had positioned himself to run against Hillary Clinton, as he is still doing effectively. But you have to win your party’s nomination first.

Jeb did, however, have a terrific moment near the end of the debate, if anyone was still watching after five hours. After moderator Jake Tapper asked the candidates what name they would prefer for their Secret Service designation if they became president, Bush chose Eveready, the battery symbolized by the Energizer Bunny that “just keeps ticking.” 

Trump, who has accused Bush of having “low energy,” joined in the laughter and applause. 

Even before Bush deflated him, the Trump balloon flew closer to earth in this debate—although it remains to be seen if prospective voters in Iowa and New Hampshire share this view. After an inconclusive exchange with Bush on the merits of speaking Spanish—as Bush does whenever the occasion demands—Trump seemed taken aback when Rubio, whose family emigrated from Cuba, patiently explained why his grandfather explained to him in Spanish the merits of Ronald Reagan. Trump never returned to the subject.

Fiorina was the other balloon-puncturer, as explained in yesterday’s story in RealClearPolitics by Rebecca Berg. Trump seemed particularly bemused when Fiorina rattled off the precise number of brigades, ships and airplanes that U.S. armed forces need to come to full strength. My companion, sitting next to me, said that Trump’s expression said: “How did she know all that?”

As a Reagan biographer and reporter who covered his political career for The Washington Post and the San Jose Mercury-News, I went to this debate seeking Reaganesque moments. There weren’t many; Reagan set high standards. As for what Reagan would have thought of the current field, it’s risky to guess. Reagan was dependable but he was also capable of surprises.

With that caveat, I think Reagan would have been pleased with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s repeated call for candidates to talk about the needs of the American people rather than themselves. Reagan avoided the first-person pronoun and gave credit for his accomplishments to the American people.

As he put it in his farewell speech in which he made light of his nickname, the Great Communicator:

“I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn’t spring full blown from my brow; they came from heart of a great nation—from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries. They called it the Reagan Revolution. Well, I’ll accept that, but for me it always seemed more like the great rediscovery, the rediscovery of our values and our common sense.”

That was the Reagan that Christie tried to channel Wednesday night.

If Reagan had watched the debate undercard, I think he would have appreciated the wit of Lindsey Graham, who recovered from a stumbling performance in the first debate with some Reagan-style one-liners. Alone among the candidates, Graham noted that the ratio of workers to retirees is declining and that immigrants would have to take up the slack. The South Carolina senator, who has championed comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship, brought a roar from the crowd when he said: “Strom Thurmond had four kids after age 67. If you're not willing to do that, we need to come up with a new immigration system.” 

The undercard, dominated by Graham and former New York Gov. George Pataki, gave candidates room to talk, and talk they did. On the crowded stage of the top 11 candidates, it was harder to make an impression. Fiorina and Rubio broke through the tangle at the top and Christie showed the flash he showed in 2012. But for my money, the moment of the night was when Jeb Bush ever so slightly took some of the air out of the high-flying Trump blimp.

Lou Cannon worked 26 years for The Washington Post and is the author of “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime.”

Show commentsHide Comments