While you were otherwise occupied enjoying a lovely autumn weekend, apple picking and football watching and what have you, Donald Trump and Jeb Bush were engaged in a very silly fight — one that revealed a problem for Bush, but not the one you might assume.
The battle began when Trump mentioned Jeb's brother George W. in an interview with Bloomberg News. "When you talk about George Bush, say what you want, but the World Trade Center came down during his time," Trump said. When Bloomberg's Stephanie Ruhle suggested that Bush shouldn't bear the blame for that, Trump replied, "He was president. Don't blame him, or don't blame him, but he was president."
Incensed, Jeb Bush tweeted that Trump was "pathetic" for that critique. Trump, who never saw a Twitter fight he didn't want to win, has tweeted or retweeted about Bush, his GOP presidential challenger, 18 times since, including a "no, you're pathetic" rejoinder and a much-retweeted question about George W. Bush's foreign policy decisions:
The left, which has been asking questions similar to that one for years, ate it up. Think Progress offered a snarky analysis of whether George Bush was, as Trump claimed, president during 9/11. (Verdict: He was.) At Vox, Ezra Klein declared that Trump had identified "Jeb Bush's greatest weakness as a candidate" — Iraq — by pointing to a Bush interview on CNN that Klein decreed "almost physically painful to watch."
This is the snippet.
Bush starts off slowly — and that's meant literally. If you watch the clip in the full context of the interview, you see that Bush's responses generally were a bit time-delayed, probably because he appeared remotely. The answer itself was a bit garbled at the the beginning, but hardly "physically painful." If your inclination is to disagree with Bush's argument before it is offered, you're probably more likely to agree that his mumbly-fumbly answer is cringe-y. If your inclination lies elsewhere, you might not.
Klein's argument doesn't center on the fumbling, though. Instead, he argues that the exchange reveals Bush's flaws in two ways. First, that Bush carries more general-election baggage than other candidates, and this will remind Republican voters of that fact. Second, that the CNN question, contrasting Bush's defense of his brother with the investigation of Benghazi, suggests some hypocrisy.
It's objectively pretty hard to see how defending George W. Bush harms his brother with the Republican electorate. A poll earlier this year found that most Republicans considered George an asset to Jeb, even as George's favorability ratings hit a new post-presidency high.
In other words, it seems very likely that George Bush is now viewed more favorably than Jeb Bush. The critique of the former president that resonates, it seems, is that his efforts in Iraq were a mess — but even there, the United States is about evenly split on whether the war was a mistake, even knowing what we know now about its origins.
Might some Republicans worry about electability? Maybe. But it's not clear that many are inclined to vote based on that at this point. Might some Republican voters think it's hypocritical to defend Bush but press on Benghazi? No.
All of that said, though, there is a reason that the spat with Trump is bad for Bush. It draws media attention to Jeb, who does not do well with media attention. The fumbling probably actually was the worst part of the interview.
Earlier this month, we documented a number of times that Bush said things he later had to clarify or talk around, including his early-campaign efforts to defend George Bush's decision on the Iraq War. Bush is not, by nature, someone who can nail a talking point or remain within the publicly acceptable constraints of what a politician is expected to say. He rambles; he adds unhelpful details; he gets flustered. Faced with the glare of media attention, he can get blinded.
Bush clearly felt as though he had to respond to Trump, which is understandable; you can't just let a guy beat you over the head endlessly. But to subject yourself to a debate with Trump on his home turf (the media/Twitter)? That's a bad call — even if you are naturally gifted in that space. Bush's garbled start at the beginning of the video above is what earned him the particularly unfavorable commentary of those who don't like him, no matter what else he went on to say.
The good news, though, is this: It happened over a beautiful autumn weekend three months before the primary elections. Bush's campaign is shaky, the result in part of his shaky campaigning. He should use this last weekend as a reminder of when to willingly jump in front of a camera to do battle with Trump.