Jeb Bush held a town hall in Hampton, New Hampshire Thursday evening, engaging his audience and finding support yet tangled in his many challenges. Bush spoke to about 150-200 people for an hour and 20 minutes, with another 25 minutes spent saying hello, shaking hands, taking pictures and at times hugging everyone who wanted to do so.
Bush has many strengths; he’s skilled at retail politics and the back and forth of a town hall, with substantial experience as a two-term governor and knowledge of many issues and topics. He continues to be hampered by his weak points, however. Foremost among those weak points is a decidedly different personality from what voters have, so far anyway, indicated that they are looking for in a 2016 Republican candidate. He’s not low-energy but he is largely low emotion, seemingly interested in ideas, data, how to change things and not structured around visceral anger. In a campaign season dominated by Donald Trump’s disgust at the state of America and Ted Cruz’s attacks on government tyranny the analytical Bush is a man adrift.
Jeb’s conundrum comes full circle with the topic of the last two Republican presidents. He’s long appeared to be uncomfortable discussing his father and brother, but at this town hall Jeb seemed much more comfortable and responded at length to a woman who urged him to use them in his campaign. Early efforts to try to avoid displaying any sense of entitlement to the Oval Office are long gone, swept away in an unending stream of low poll numbers. His problem now is more practical: both Presidents Bush left office in low Republican esteem. George H.W. Bush left office a virtual pariah in Republican circles, denigrated for losing the White House to the plebeian Bill Clinton, while George W. Bush was widely regarded as a failed presidency leaving with a then-six year war in Iraq continuing, the economy shrinking and in shambles and the financial system having come within a hairs-breadth of collapse. Bush is understandably loathe to criticize his father and brother but the reality of the 2016 campaign is that much of what the 41st and 43rd presidents did is poorly viewed by the Republican electorate. Jeb familial ties to them are of course unalterable, but he has yet to fully and clearly define whether he’s truly their political heir as well.
Jeb soldiers on, betting that Republican primary voters will tire of the emotion, the anger and the vitriol displayed by Trump and Cruz and look for a more rational, analytical and prepared president. It’s a decreasingly likely outcome, but it’s the rational and analytical Bush’s only bet.
“I haven’t seen you in a while, you look a lot more confident out there” said one man with three copies of Bush’s book for Jeb to autograph, among the post-town hall crowd around Jeb. “You’re still voting for me, right?” replied Bush as he began signing, provoking a lengthy and somewhat tortured explanation that the man is an independent who has “never voted Republican in my life”, but who “actually could vote for you” even though “I didn’t like your brother.” Bush urged the man several times to “vote for me”, and to exercise the right afforded New Hampshire registered independent voters to vote in any party’s primary. “If it’s Bernie Sanders versus you I’d vote for you, no matter what” understandably did not satisfy Bush. “Come in our sandbox and vote for me” closed Bush. The “ok” in reply was less than convincing.
Video – Here is Bush’s full town hall: