Jeb Bush, the man who would be front-runner, was as surprised as anybody when Donald Trump jumped into the 2016 presidential race in June. His instinctive first reaction was to hold his tongue, and his advisers agreed the best option was to keep his distance from an interloper who wanted to drag him into a reality-show shouting match.
Bush stayed strategically silent even when Trump delivered his infamous crack that some Mexican immigrants were “rapists.” It wasn’t easy, considering Bush speaks nearly flawless Spanish, backs comprehensive immigration reform and is married to the former Columba Garnica de Gallo of Leon, Mexico.
Like everyone else, Bush soon found Trump impossible to ignore. When Trump reposted a nasty tweet a couple of weeks after his contentious announcement speech— “Bush has to like Mexican illegals because of his wife”—the former Florida governor was forced to respond. “You can love your Mexican-American wife,” he told one interviewer before telling another that Trump was “preying on people’s fears.”
The half-dozen conservative senators and governors who had planned to run before Bush brought out his shock-and-awe fundraising campaign, had to laugh: They viewed Bush himself as an intruder, a political semi-retiree who sat on the sidelines for eight years while they fought Barack Obama. Now it was Bush’s turn to rage at an outsider.
“Seriously, what’s this guy’s problem?” he asked one party donor he ran into recently, according to accounts provided by several sources close to Bush—and he went on to describe the publicity-seeking real estate developer now surging in public polls far ahead of Bush and all the 15 others in the Republican field as “a buffoon,” “clown” and “asshole.”
Whatever Bush wants to call Trump, the most accurate appellation heading into Thursday night’s first big Republican debate of the chaotic 2016 contest in Cleveland is the label that should have been Bush’s: “frontrunner.”
As much as anything, this is the story of 2016 so far. The proliferation of 17 candidates—a mob so big it needed to be subdivided into two separate debates—is a symptom of a deeper dynamic—the absence of a true frontrunner capable of uniting the party.
“The plan isn’t working,” conservative writer James Tobin wrote in Commentary magazine of Bush’s de facto entrance into the race in January. “[O]ther Republicans appear to be insufficiently shocked and awed.”
Trump is besting Bush so far, but it’s hardly a lock that this is anything more than summer fling.
So far, The Donald has been immune from the backlash that typically kills mouth-driven campaigns—which is a good thing given his flip-flopping, amateur-hour staffing decisions, and relentless you’re-a-loser negativity, and the bad hair hidden under worse hats. But he shares a characteristic with all those lesser-known candidates who have also flooded into the 2016 race: He sees a vacuum at the top.
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POLITICO Magazine: How Jeb and the GOP Got Trumped.