Already, eleven months from the first voting event of the 2016 presidential contest, it’s obvious one of the big media narratives we’ll all have to deal with is the Genius of Jeb Bush. For reasons that may vary from habit to herd instinct to a certain unsavory dynastic servility, actions that if taken by any other politician would be viewed critically somehow elicit great admiration and elaborate interpretive structures at the hands of the Bush scion. It could be a while before anyone surpasses the sycophancy of yesterday’s Jebbie profile by Politico‘s Ben White and Marc Caputo. But lo, before the sun had set on that production, WaPo’s estimable Chris Cillizza tortured a ho-hum Bush foreign policy speech featuring a couple of gaffes into a strategeristic masterstroke:
The headline before, during and after Jeb Bush’s foreign policy speech on Wednesday in Chicago was his insistence that he was his “own man” — a not-so subtle declaration of independence from the policies of his father and brother aka the 41st and 43rd presidents of the United States….
But, having watched the speech live and gone through the entirety of the transcript afterwards, what’s clear is that the Bush riff on his family was totally shoe-horned into the broader address and had virtually nothing to do with what Bush was talking about more generally when it came to his foreign policy vision.
So it was a mistake to “go there,” right? Jeb stepped on his own speech, right? Oh no….
Given the sort-of-out-of-nowhere nature of what Jeb said on his family — and the fact that the “I am my ow man” line was included in the excerpts shipped to reporters (including this one) Tuesday night, it seems very clear what Jeb (and his team) were up to. This was a trial balloon for how (and how much) Jeb will — and will have to — talk about the Bush name in the campaign to come. His people are smart and, therefore, were well aware that the lines about his family would dominate coverage and overshadow a speech decidedly light on specifics. That level of press coverage and scrutiny will function, at some level, as a sort of gauge for how much leeway (or not) Bush has to talk about his brother and father (or not talk about his brother and father).
Assuming the Bush folks did this on purpose — and I am very strongly suspicious that they did — then it’s a very smart strategic move. Begin the airing of the major issue for Jeb — his last name and all it means — even before he is a candidate in a speech that will draw lots of attention from the politics-starved political media. Measure reaction and adjust accordingly.
So when you lead with your chin, it’s because you’re so smart that you know getting those blows to the chin out of the way will make your chin less vulnerable in the long run, or something.
Now Cillizza could have offered the same questionable analysis of Team Jeb deciding to make a 4,000 word Big Foreign Policy speech a mere pretext for testing the virulence of associations with his family without so quickly concluding it was a “very smart strategic move.” But we’d better get used to this habit from certain elements of the chattering classes. As an antidote, it might be good to recall those stories from 2011 about the cutting-edge brilliance of Rick Perry’s campaign wizards. Once you’ve decided somebody’s playing chess while the rest of us are playing checkers, you can convince yourself that a really dumb checkers move will somehow pay off in the end. It may transpire that the only thing brilliant about Jeb Bush’s campaign is its ability to turn journalists into unwitting flacks.