The internet is a fickle place. For weeks, it lavished attention on the storyline that Jeb Bush was destined to play the role of chief antagonist to Donald Trump — Jeb would be Sherlock Holmes to Trump’s Professor Moriarty, bravely calling out Trump’s vile demagoguery and basking in accolades from it.
But Jeb’s efforts to challenge Trump failed to capture the imagination. Now, suddenly, the internet is abuzz with talk about how Marco Rubio is the one who is drawing blood from Trump, and talk of Rubio having a plausible shot at the nomination is on the rise.
The chatter about Rubio’s skillful engagement of Trump grew louder on twitter today when Trump, addressing the Values Voter Summit, called Rubio a “clown,” only to be met with loud booing.
“Tide turning?” tweeted National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar, as if to suggest that Rubio may have found the key to unlocking the forces that would finally bring down Trump.
Trump also seemed to let on that Rubio is getting under his skin in an interview today in which he called the Florida Senator a “baby.”
This came after Rubio tagged Trump as a “touchy and insecure guy” who has been “exposed a little bit over the last seven days.” Rubio was responding to an earlier Trump broadside in which the Donald described him as a “kid” and a “lightweight.” And Trump has also attacked Rubio by pointing out that he “sweats more than any young person I’ve ever seen in my life,” whatever that is supposed to tell us.
Suddenly, the political classes are talking about Rubio as Trump’s chief foil. Politico ran an analysis of Rubio’s new taking-it-to-Trump strategy, concluding that Rubio is a “skill puncher” and that the “benefits could be huge.”
It’s enough to make one feel sorry for Jeb. After all, Bush repeatedly tried to take on Trump, after the billionaire developed a habit of referring to Bush as “low energy.” Jeb has gone after Trump on precisely the thing about Trump that the political classes had been wringing their hands about, challenging Trump’s restrictionism and the evident pleasure he’s taken in insulting millions of immigrants.
At the recent GOP debate, Jeb earnestly challenged Trump’s attacks on Mexican immigrants by arguing that Republicans instead should take a “hopeful, optimistic approach” by welcoming them to this country to pursue the American dream. For good measure, Jeb even threw in a Reagan reference. But all anyone remembered about this exchange was Jeb’s failure to extract from Trump an apology to his wife; Jeb lost the alpha male battle of wills.
Now Jeb is dropping in the polls, and Rubio is rising (a little bit, anyway) in them.
It appears Rubio may simply be better at engaging Trump than Jeb is. Why?
Perhaps Jeb is just too earnest; he doesn’t know how to engage on Trump’s level, and Rubio does. Jeb is trying to engage the brash billionaire by prattling on about American values and tolerance. Boooooor-ing! Rubio, by contrast, tagged Trump as “touchy and insecure” and over “exposed,” a much more TV-and-internet-friendly hit that hints at questions about Trump’s masculinity. Rubio gets it!
Perhaps Rubio just has a better instinct for what we used to refer to, in the prehistoric days of the internet, as the “freak show,” the evolving 24-7 cable news and internet political media culture that, if anything, has only gotten freakier and more hyper-kinetic with the twitterization of politics. Jeb hasn’t been in politics for many years. Rubio, by contrast, was first elected to the Senate amid the 2010 Tea Party wave, when this internet/media/twitter/ political culture was really going into hyperdrive.
We may learn in coming days that Rubio just knows how attack Trump in ways that work better in this new media environment — and knows how to get under the reality TV master’s skin — in a manner that Jeb just can’t hope to fathom. Politics isn’t fair.