It’s a moment Republican onlookers always knew would come, though they did not know precisely when: The long-simmering tension between former Florida governor Jeb Bush and his one-time protégé, Florida senator Marco Rubio, has become a public spat. It was Bush who made it one.
Until this week, the two presidential rivals had exchanged veiled barbs. Bush had claimed, without naming Rubio, that he is the only candidate in the race with enough experience to clean up the mess in Washington. Rubio had said, without naming Bush, that the time is ripe for a new generation of leadership.
But on Wednesday, Bush began naming names, comparing Rubio, a man he once urged Mitt Romney to select as his running mate, to Barack Obama — not the inspirational leader who has helped to remake the Democratic coalition, but the neophyte executive who has left many conservatives angry and dispirited.
It’s Bush’s latest attack against an adversary he clearly considers a threat, and it comes as the governor is feeling pressure from skittish donors to break out in debates and in the polls. First, in what appeared an attempt to make the GOP contest a two-way race, came sallies in early September against the businessman Donald Trump, who had assailed Bush as a “low energy” candidate. The polls didn’t budge, and Trump’s charge stuck. Now, with his super PAC beginning a $24-million ad buy, Bush is turning his sights to Rubio, who has risen in the polls and who many say is threatening to steal his former mentor’s position as the party’s establishment favorite. Whether the ads persuade and the attacks land will do much to determine Bush’s fortunes.
#related#Bush is asking primary voters to weigh the value of experience against charisma, vision, and oratorical skill. Bush certainly has the former, and doesn’t pretend to have much of the latter. “I am who I am,” he told CNN’s Dana Bash on Wednesday. “I think people want someone who has the leadership skills to turn ideas into reality.”
With regard to Rubio, Bush said, the country has been there and done that, and its fascination with political celebrities is coming to an end. “Look, we had a president who came in and said the same kind of things [as Rubio],” Bush said. “‘New and improved,’ ‘hope and change.’ And he didn’t have the leadership skills to fix things.” Asked on Thursday if Rubio had the leadership skills to succeed in the White House, Bush said: “It’s not known. Barack Obama didn’t have them and he won an election on the belief that he could.”
Rubio’s youth and inexperience, says an unaffiliated Republican strategist, are “obvious and very real” challenges, all the more so since Republicans have spent the past seven years scorning a president with the same qualities. But, says the strategist, Rubio “has an ability to speak clearly to the anxieties of voters and to articulate an energetic vision for the future. . . . If anyone has the political skills to overcome those kinds of critiques, it’s Rubio.”
Rubio’s team declined to respond to Bush’s remarks, but a Rubio ally tells National Review they are the product of increasing desperation on Bush’s part. “He’s worried about the poll numbers, he’s worried about the donor reactions. I don’t know that throwing a little elbow at him is going to make any difference,” says the ally.
Bush and his team are shrugging their shoulders about what is clearly a pivotal moment in the campaign. The governor, says spokesman Tim Miller, “was asked about the differences between his experiences and Marco’s. That’s what happens in a campaign!”
Back before the current contest pitted their ambitions against each other, in 2012, Bush urged Mitt Romney to select Rubio as his vice presidential nominee, arguing that “He has more experience than Barack Obama had when he ran, more practical experience,” as well as the “intellectual acumen and the fortitude to be a good president.” Rubio, too, offered praise for Bush in his memoir, calling him “a one-man idea factory” who used his brains and “the authority and bully pulpit of the governor’s office not just to improve the status quo on the margins, but to overcome it and change it.”
‘We had a president who came in and said the same kind of things [as Rubio]: “New and improved,” “hope and change.” And he didn’t have the leadership skills to fix things. ’
The current Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump, has dismissed all of this goodwill with the wave of a hand. At an event in New Hampshire on Wednesday evening, he called the mentor-mentee relationship between Bush and Rubio a load of “political bullshit.”
“They hate each other,” he said. “Trust me, I know. . . . It’s political bullshit.”
And yet, at a dueling event in New Hampshire, Bush softened his tone on Rubio and addressed Trump’s jab. “I’m pretty sure Marco can put his big boy pants on. I know I can,” he said. “We’re friends. I can take criticism, he can as well.”
Rubio has yet to snub Bush by name on the campaign trail, though he has come close. His stump speech has long included a call to “turn the page” on the old political guard and the Republican names of the past. On Monday, campaigning before a booming crowd of supporters in his home state, Rubio was more explicit, warning attendees, “We cannot simply promote the next person in line or the most familiar name.”
Although he wouldn’t put it this way, Rubio is indeed running as the GOP’s Barack Obama: young, exciting, inspirational. It’s been a long time since Republicans have had a presidential candidate they felt could communicate with and persuade voters, and Rubio is capable of doing so.
#share#But 2016 will test how much GOP primary voters value executive experience — a quality they’ve tended to favor in the past — and whether they will trade it for charisma. Bush will have try to make a case that Obama has stumbled not just because he was wrong but because he was inexperienced. Rubio will have to persuade the Republican primary electorate that a properly articulated vision and a bit of pizzaz count for a lot.
Democratic voters faced a similar choice in 2008. One debate moderator observed that Democrats liked Hillary Clinton’s resume but simply liked Obama more. We know what they did. Jeb Bush has to hope that Republicans don’t make the same choice.
— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review. Elaina Plott is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.