Two standing ovations into his speech at a packed Disney World ballroom last Tuesday, Jeb Bush had a strut in his step.
So when one Republican attendee stood up and asked how over a dozen GOP candidates could wrestle for their party’s nomination “without tearing each other apart” in a repeat of 2012 — when Mitt Romney was battered by his fellow Republicans before the general election even began — the former governor pulled no punches.
“It’s a big deal, it’ll be competitive,” he said. “There’s going to be some elbows and knees under the boards here. This isn’t tiddlywinks we’re playing.”
The admission signaled a shift for Bush, who said he would jump into the race only if he thought he could do so with joy in his heart and carry that levity to the campaign trail. The change follows a bruising few weeks in which Bush fumbled a question about the Iraq war and has generally failed to set himself apart from the rest of a growing field. Republican strategists view his comments as an attempt to jettison an unrealistic strategy early in the campaign, reassuring nervous donors that he has the will to fight hard — and fight dirty if necessary — to win the nomination.
‘There’s going to be some elbows and knees under the boards here. This isn’t tiddlywinks we’re playing.’
Earlier that day in Orlando, Bush had thrown an elbow of his own at one of his opponents, Rand Paul, slamming the Kentucky senator for his opposition to the Patriot Act. “I think he’s wrong in saying that this is unconstitutional or saying that people’s freedoms have been violated by the Patriot Act,” Bush said. Throughout his appearance at Disney World, he seemed a far cry from the joyful candidate he had previously claimed to be. Instead, like everyone else in the field, he was sharp and aggressive. “My intention is to run on my record and my ideas and run to try to win the presidency,” he said. “Not to make a point. Not to have my voice heard. There are motivations for every candidate. Mine would be to win.”
Bush’s new tone may be a preview of what’s to come as the primary campaign gets under way. “It’s pulling back the curtain on what will likely be the true nature of the campaign he’s going to run,” says one unaffiliated GOP operative. “It’s a clue that we could expect a somewhat negative campaign in the future —mainly because of the fact that his negatives are already so high in the Republican electorate. He needs to find a way to get the others there.”
“He’s being more realistic about what a Republican primary will be like with the amount of candidates involved,” says Ron Bonjean, a veteran Republican strategist. He says Bush is wise to hint at a pessimistic campaign now, rather than flip abruptly from sunshine and rainbows to full-blown mudslinging late in the primary season. That way, “When he does have to be negative, he’s already provided the pivot point,” Bonjean says. “And he’s done it early.”
Bush has been paying lip service to the politics of joy ever since his first flirtations with a presidential run last year. “The decision will be based on, can I do it joyfully?” he said in January 2014. “I think we need to have candidates lift our spirits. It’s a pretty pessimistic country right now.” In April 2014, he promised to push a “hopeful, optimistic message” and to avoid “the vortex of the mudfight.” In an interview with the Wall Street Journal last November, he talked about the “joy in [his] heart.”
But, since the launch of his super PAC, Right to Rise, in January, he has avoided the “happy warrior” theme. His operation’s push to lock up top GOP strategists and advisers, something the New York Times labeled an attempt to starve other Republican campaigns of talent, raised doubts about his intent to stay positive as early as February.
Party insiders say Bush’s admission that there’ll be “elbows and knees under the boards” during the campaign was a signal to the big-money donors who have been unimpressed by his light touch and concerned by his missteps.
It’s not clear if Bush’s rhetorical shift is simply a gesture to appease skittish donors or the start of a full-scale turn to rough-and-tumble campaigning.
The former Florida governor lost his slight lead in a crowded GOP field last week, falling to 10 percent support nationally and joining Scott Walker, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio in the pack of Republican frontrunners. “Donors are probably starting to get a little nervous that there hasn’t been more headway at this point,” says an unaffiliated Republican operative. By hinting at a strategic shakeup that will include tough hits on high-flying opponents, the operative says Bush hopes to stop donors from jumping ship.
“It’s probably not accidental that this happened in Florida,” he says, “where he’s being threatened politically by Marco Rubio.” He and other political operatives believe that the Florida senator is causing Bush more heartburn than the other candidates — largely due to their competition for the same donor base.
“You sort of interpret it as, ‘Look, my donors are getting antsy, struggling poll numbers, Marco’s on the move here at home — let’s show ’em we can fight,’” he says.
#related#It’s not clear if Bush’s rhetorical shift is simply a gesture to appease skittish donors or the start of a full-scale turn to rough-and-tumble campaigning. But most observers suspect the latter, saying Bush’s wish to keep things “joyful” was always a pipe dream given the size and strength of his Republican opposition.
“Had he kept going positive, and now you’re in December and he started going negative, it would be a big deal,” Bonjean says. “He punctured that balloon early.”
“A campaign must balance being positive against being negative,” says Brad Blakeman, a former official in the George W. Bush administration. “You can’t have one without the other — it’s a question of degree. Nice guys do finish last.”
— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.