After I stopped giggling over Donald Trump’s Rosie O’Donnell reference (it was hilarious), marveling at Mike Huckabee’s eloquence, and nodding with Ben Carson’s gracious, soft-spoken support for a truly color-blind society, I realized that the biggest takeaways of the night were the things left unsaid.
First, the candidates seemed to go out of their way to avoid really tangling with Donald Trump. Perhaps this is because they’ve realized that the more they mess with him, the more popular he seems to get. Kasich—the guy who jumped into the race last—was smart enough to acknowledge, rather than dismiss, Trump’s appeal.
None of the Republicans on stage laid a finger on Jeb Bush.
Second, and most importantly, none of the Republicans on stage laid a finger on Jeb Bush. The guy with $120 million in the bank, who disagrees with the grassroots on critical issues like Common Core and immigration amnesty, who has a last name that nullifies the dynastic hit on Hillary Clinton’s candidacy—and no one touches him? The closest anyone came was Jeb’s protégé Marco Rubio who gently remarked that the election is about the future, not the past.
Of course the fellow who has been the most blunt, if unartful, in taking on the Bushes—“The last thing we need is another Bush”—has enjoyed a lead in almost every major poll lately.
What does that tell us at this early stage? That Trump’s rise is strongly correlated to his willingness to flatly state that the GOP screwed up in the 2000s. His focus on America in decline, and his blaming both parties for the slide, is unquestionably driving his appeal. Whether the Trump phenomenon roars on or not, a sizeable chunk of the voters are digging in their heels against the GOP Establishment. They are recoiling at the prospect that another middle-of-the road corporatist candidate—especially another Bush—will be forced upon them in 2016.
What does that tell us at this early stage? That Trump’s rise is strongly correlated to his willingness to flatly state that the GOP screwed up in the 2000s.
When Jeb Bush was asked about the toxicity of his surname, he didn’t have a persuasive answer. Instead he fell back on two unconvincing lines — “I’m my own man,” and “In Florida, they called me Jeb.” My guess is that those lines won’t work against Hillary — but they were enough to get him through last night’s debate.
So while many commentators predicting the demise of Trump are gleeful that Donald Trump got heated and repeated some of his old lines (“We don’t win anymore”), I am keeping my eye on the ball. With every debate that passes in which Bush-style Republicanism isn’t held up to scrutiny, Jeb breathes a sigh of relief.