Jeb Bush vs. Marco Rubio: Can the friendly tone last?

Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio were political allies in Florida. Now they're trying to vanquish each other. But for now, their rhetoric has stayed positive. 

Phil Coale/AP/File
In this Sept. 13, 2005, file photo, then-state Rep. Marco Rubio (l.) holds a sword presented to him by then-Gov. Jeb Bush (r.) during ceremonies designating Mr. Rubio as the next Florida Speaker of the House in Tallahassee, Fla. Now, both are running for president, and their friendship remains close.

Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, both top GOP prospects for president, often describe one another as “friend” or even “good friend.” And they seem to mean it.

They are so close they’re practically family, like uncle and nephew, people who know them have said. It is a relationship born of their days in Florida politics, Mr. Bush as governor, Senator Rubio as a state representative. They still live just a few miles apart, Bush in Coral Gables and Rubio in West Miami.

Now they are out to vanquish one another. For the moment, top-tier candidates like Bush and Rubio – and those with a shot at making the top tier – are working on channeling their inner Ronald Reagan or even their inner Barack Obama. Both presidents won election twice with positive, hopeful messages. 

But hardball politics also has its place in presidential campaigns, and certainly will in this election, too – even for Bush and Rubio.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, political analysts say. Campaigns are all about making contrasts – in candidates’ styles, temperaments, records, skill sets, and ideas. Voters need information on which to make a decision. Sometimes, the information that emerges can be unflattering, but if it’s accurate, then it’s fair game. 

While unfair attacks or outright lies are another matter, a number of factors – from the sheer size of the presidential field to the rise of outside political groups – suggest that such attacks will remain a part of the campaign playbook this election. Indeed, Bush’s own father in many ways proved the power of the negative campaign, and so long as it remains effective, politicians will use it.

“In politics, especially on this level, you have friendships, but just like in business, when it’s time for business, it’s time for business. When it’s time for politics, it’s time for politics,” says Matthew Corrigan, political scientist and author of the book “Conservative Hurricane: How Jeb Bush Remade Florida.”

Bush and Rubio “are both going to run very tough campaigns, and they’re going to have to,” says Mr. Corrigan, who teaches at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.

Clearly, Bush and Rubio have much at stake in the messages that come out of both their campaigns and the outside groups that support them – groups over which the candidates have no control, in theory, as they are barred from coordinating with the campaigns by law. Bush has pledged to campaign “joyfully” and with a message of optimism. Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, has gone far – and fast – by campaigning as a happy warrior and a man of the future who embodies the American dream.

Still, they are taking shots at each other, if ever-so-gently. Bush regularly touts his executive experience as a governor by comparing the senators in the 2016 race – no names mentioned – to a certain former senator now occupying the White House.

“As our whole nation has learned since 2008, executive experience is another term for preparation and there is no substitute for that,” Bush said in his announcement speech Monday.

When Rubio announced in April, he made a comment that was interpreted as a swipe at Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, who had announced the day before. But it could just as easily have been a jab at Bush, the son and brother of former presidents. “Yesterday is over, and we're never going back,” Rubio said.

This is all pretty tame stuff. But it’s early, and history suggests that as the stakes mount, the tone becomes more combative. It was Bush’s father, the genteel George H.W. Bush, who brought in the aggressive operative Lee Atwater to run his 1988 presidential campaign. Mr. Atwater was most famous for using Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who had raped a woman while on furlough, against Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis. Atwater famously said he would make Mr. Horton “[Governor] Dukakis’s running mate,” after an outside group made an ad highlighting Horton.

Jeb’s brother, George W. Bush, also benefited from the aggressive actions of an outside group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, during his successful reelection campaign for president in 2004. The Swift Boaters effectively attacked Democratic nominee John Kerry’s military service during the Vietnam War. John McCain, the Arizona senator and former prisoner of war, condemned the attacks, but the Bush campaign did not.

In both cases, it was not the Bushes themselves who were making the negative assertions. It was operatives, or advertisements, or outside groups. That’s the lesson Jeb learned when he ran for governor of Florida the first time, unsuccessfully, in 1994.

“Bush was the one making the tough statements, and of course he got hit for it and lost,” says Corrigan at the University of North Florida.  “He learned from that model, it’s not the candidate that should be making the big haymakers, usually. You’ve got a whole operation to do that.” 

Indeed, part of the purpose of the political machinery around candidates is to allow the candidates themselves to remain positive while still attacking through back doors. Even as Bush and Rubio take the rhetorical high ground, their surrogates – people deputized to speak for the candidates – will not feel the need to be so high-minded.

“Do I think you will see campaign surrogates attacking the other candidates? Yes,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “Will they try to do it off the record? Yes. Will they be planting opposition research with the press? Yes. Because that’s how politics works these days. If they didn’t do that, they would not be a competitive campaign, unfortunately.”

For other, lower-tier candidates, the size of the Republican field could spur desperate moves. Then there's billionaire Donald Trump, who plays a different kind of political game. He went after Rubio and Bush by name in his 40-minute stemwinder of a campaign announcement Tuesday, slamming both for their answers to questions on the Iraq War.

Mr. Trump doesn’t mince words – and he wins some support for his brash style, possibly enough to qualify for the first debate on Aug. 6. Though he has virtually no chance of winning the GOP nomination, with three-quarters of Republican voters ruling him out, the tactic of attack will likely become an integral part of the campaign.

“I don’t expect it from candidates who are ahead in the polls,” Ms. Jamieson says. “You expect it from those trying to get into the debates by attacking the front-runners. As they become more desperate for news coverage, to get their polling numbers up, their rhetoric becomes harsher and less factual.”

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