WASHINGTON – A most unfamiliar likeness of Jeb Bush appeared on Americans’ television screens the morning after the New Hampshire primary.
This version looked alive.
The onetime front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination was asked, on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” what he made of the disturbing exit-poll finding that 64 percent of Republican voters in New Hampshire support Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the country.
“I’m not going to follow what the polls say,” Bush said. “I apologize, but I believe what I believe. This is a horrific idea, and it sends this signal of divisiveness at a time when we need to find things that unite us. Our country has fallen apart, and we don’t need presidents – candidates on the left or right – that continue to prey on that division. We need someone who can actually be president to create a set of purposes that unite us. And one of those is we need to protect the homeland from Islamic terrorism, and you don’t do that by banning all Muslims.”
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It was an artful response, courageous – and high-energy.
Only in the bizarre world of politics would Bush’s fourth-place finish in New Hampshire be considered good news: His millions of dollars got him only 31,310 votes, or 11 percent of the total. But considering that Bush was ready for embalming before Tuesday night, the notion that Jeb is not dead is noteworthy. At the very least, he lives to be awkward another day.
This turnabout may say less about Bush than about the tragic state of the Republican mainstream as it tries to find an alternative to Trump and Ted Cruz. Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina are out of the race. Marco Rubio’s debate debacle left him with a Rick Perry problem of looking like a lightweight. John Kasich scored well in New Hampshire but will have trouble convincing Republicans elsewhere that he’s conservative enough. That leaves – could it be? – Jeb.
It’s not as much of a punch line as it once seemed. Bush has improved, in debates and on the stump. And he is taking on Trump, and the dangers the demagogue poses, more forcefully than anybody in the race. He’ll never have his brother’s political skills, but had he been this polished a candidate nine months ago, the race might look very different today.
“Donald Trump would be a disaster as our nominee,” Bush said Wednesday on MSNBC. “He’s a gifted politician. … But you can’t use profanity and disparage women and, you know, disparage the disabled, all the things that he does, and not send a pretty negative signal to the broader audience that ultimately is going to decide who the president is.”
At his first post-New Hampshire event, in Bluffton, S.C., Bush tied Trump to President Obama and Hillary Clinton. “We have a president that pushes us down all the time,” he said. “Hillary Clinton would do the same thing, and so does Donald Trump. If you want someone with a servant’s heart, someone who solves problems, someone focused on applying our conservative principles consistently, then you’re looking at the next president of the United States, with your help.”
Bush’s message of competence and experience, like Clinton’s, goes against the prevailing anger. But Bush has gained something as important: He seems comfortable in his own skin. He no longer hides from his name and he acknowledges that “I’m part of the establishment.”
And his emerging status as the anti-Trump seems to give him purpose – even when on Fox News, the outlet that in many ways created Trump as a political force. Bush spoke Wednesday morning of Trump “preying on people’s fears” and “basically saying that life’s bad” and “tearing people down.” Said Bush: “We’re never going to win the presidency with that kind of approach. And I will continue to take him on.”
It may be too late to stop Trump. But it’s reassuring that Bush is gaining traction by trying. On CNN, he reminded listeners that two-thirds of Republicans still don’t support Trump. “Trump’s the master at capturing people’s angst,” Bush said. “… He just says, ‘I’ll fix it, I’ll solve it, it’ll be fine, it’ll be huge’ or whatever, but there’s nothing tangible that would suggest he has the skills to do it.”
Will the revived Bush surge? That’s a long shot. But Republicans, at least until the age of Trump, have shown a tendency to select the most obvious candidate after exhausting all other possibilities. For better or worse, that would be Jeb.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.