It was bad enough for Jeb Bush to launch a presidential campaign in the shadow of his brother, whose disastrous Iraq War made him one of the most unpopular presidents of all time. But now it’s so much worse, because Jeb’s campaign is going just like the Iraq War.
Jeb began his campaign with shock and awe. Literally, people called it “shock and awe.” People who wanted him to win. This would be, like the Iraq invasion, a campaign of overwhelming force. The shock-and-awe concept holds that massive force is not just damaging physically, but psychologically, too. Enemies are too bummed to fight. “The sheer size of this has never been seen before, never been contemplated before,” a Pentagon official said in 2003. The guy who coined the term said, “We want them to quit. We want them not to fight.”
This strategy worked for Jeb Bush, initially. Politico reported in February that Jeb had been staying publicly quiet while “laying the groundwork for a launch that would catch much of Washington—and many of his potential rivals—flat-footed.” Violent, triumphant war metaphors were tossed around freely; it was a more innocent time. The same month, Politico’s Mike Allen ranked Jeb as the No. 1 candidate most likely to win the GOP nomination: “His surprise, early signal that he’s running is THE PLAY OF THE CAMPAIGN so far—pushing OUT Mitt and perhaps Christie by freezing or stealing their money and talent.” Jeb had money and momentum, Allen said, so “watch for the use of overwhelming force to lock up more talent, donors and public endorsements.” A mid-February Washington Post headline read, “Bush blows away GOP rivals with 2016 war chest.”
There was a small snag. Potential rivals didn’t stay shocked and awed. As CNN reported, “despite the campaign’s opening attempt to convince rival Republicans to pass on the race by exclusively securing major donors—a ‘shock and awe’ salvo, as some allies described it—Bush will be joined by 16 other Republicans in the race for the White House.”
Still, there was much good news. In June, the Jeb campaign announced he’d raised $114 million—an average of $760,000 a day. Hillary Clinton had only mustered $45 million! Money was flowing so easily, Jeb had to artificially slow it down a little. “Cash was coming in at such a fast clip that early in the year, the group capped donations at $1 million a person out of a concern of fueling a perception that Bush would be indebted to a handful of uber-rich supporters,” The Washington Post reported.
Mission accomplished. At mid-year Jeb was confident, maybe getting a little bit ahead of himself, thinking about the general election more than half a year before the first primary votes. “Aides say Bush is focusing on a general election run and won’t be bogged down by traditional campaign strategies for a primary,” CNN reported. He began an expensive effort to build a system to identify and turn out voters in the general election. (In 2012, Mitt Romney’s campaign had been far behind President Obama’s when it came to voter mobilization technology. Generals are always refighting the last war.)
And then, just as in Iraq, something unanticipated happened: an insurgency. The toughest enemies were not the obvious established actors like Chris Christie or Marco Rubio, but unprofessional fringe characters, Donald Trump and Ben Carson. At first, many dismissed these insurgents as passing fads, a small hiccup on the road to freedom. But not for long.
In 2004, Dan Senor, spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, memorably told reporters who asked about a wave of violence: “Off the record, Paris is burning. On the record, security and stability are returning to Iraq.” Likewise, by September 2015, there was a split between the public confidence and private worries of Team Bush. On Fox News Sunday, Bush said, “These polls really don’t matter. ... They don’t filter out the people that aren’t going to vote. ... I know it’s an obsession because it kind of frames the debate for people for that week.” But off the record, the team was no longer so confident. A GOP fund-raiser said of Bush aides, “They are prepared for a long, grinding fight and being the last person standing. ... But they are concerned about the trends, and they are concerned about Marco.”
Were the insurgents strong enough to win outright? Probably not, analysts agreed in both cases. But they could damage Jeb, hacking away at him bit by bit, without spending a lot of resources. While Trump spent very little—relying on the media to hype his shocking attacks—Bush’s resources were drained as he tried to respond. In September, Bush’s super PAC Right to Rise began a $24 million ad campaign in early-voting states, promising to deliver results in a month’s time. That did not happen. Things only got worse.
“Our cost is billions against the terrorists’ costs of millions,” Donald Rumsfeld said in a famous October 2003 memo about Iraq. Jeb is facing similar ratios. Trump has spent less than 1 percent of what Bush spent on ads so far, according to NBC News. As Rumsfeld asked, “Is our current situation such that ‘the harder we work, the behinder we get’?”
In that same 2003 memo, Rumsfeld called Iraq a “long, hard slog.” By early 2006, he was calling it “the long war,” the kind of struggle that takes decades to win. By October of this year, Bush supporter Ron Kaufman was telling The Washington Post, “There’s a long way to go, it’s a long slog, and Jeb is built for the long haul. He is not going to win right now, there’s no question about it.” But voters would want him in the end, Kaufman promised.
By December, Jeb’s allies were explaining that the war can’t be won in a day. “The polls are great for media and pundits and all of that, but at this point I don’t take them very seriously,” Jeanne Phillips, a fundraiser for Right to Rise, recently told The Washington Post. “You want your candidate to have a slow peak.”
What can Bush do now, with actual voting just around the corner? He’s trying some nontraditional tactics. Last week a Bush lawyer asked the Federal Elections Commission to investigate Trump’s campaign, suggesting it didn’t know the difference between a leadership PAC and a super PAC. But that seems like pretty minor-league stuff considering the size of the hole Jeb’s dug himself in the polls.
Clearly, what Jeb’s campaign needs now is a surge. It worked so well in Iraq! But a surge of what, exactly? More attack ads doesn’t seem likely to help. A Frank Luntz focus group found that the more you go after Trump, the more his fans like him.
But maybe, just maybe, this is where the Iraq War parallels could be more beneficial than depressing. In Iraq the troop surge worked (short-term, at least) in part because of the Sons of Iraq program: Local Sunnis were employed as a kind of neighborhood watch to fight back against al Qaeda.
What Jeb needs is for conservative guys like Ted Cruz to attack Trump, not moderates like John Kasich, to show conservatives that Trumpism is a deviation from true conservatism. So how does Jeb convince the right-wingers to attack Trump instead of him? Maybe he can pay them to do so (Right to Rise still has $97 million cash on hand!). He can call the program Sons of Lincoln.