His world has been torn asunder and he’s not quite sure what to do about it. Among Jeb Bush’s observations at a recent town hall was the somewhat stilted characterization that “the world has been torn asunder.” There’s truth in that statement, but it’s not the way that other candidates or most voters would say it.
Jeb Bush is a candidate out of sync with the current mood in his party who, notwithstanding some significant strengths, continues to struggle at gaining traction as the New Hampshire primary approaches. He held a lengthy town hall Friday night in Hollis, New Hampshire, speaking with about 200 people for an hour and a half. Casting himself as the “only guy taking Donald Trump on”, Bush argued that both electorally and substantively the Republican Party and the country will ultimately decide that they want “a serious leader” and that he is that “serious leader.” His audience was very attentive and receptive, starting and ending with a standing ovation for Bush, but mostly they listened as he spoke for about 20 minutes and then answered 16 questions over an hour and ten minutes.
Bush has struggled throughout the campaign to find a spot in the crowded field, partly as he’s tried to reconcile his family relationships and the current public view of the last two Republican presidents. Defensive over his brother and father, he tries to avoid joining the implicit criticisms of the last two Republican presidents frequently heard on the campaign trail. Even if Jeb is inclined to voice support or admiration for their respective presidencies, he would have to choose between them on many issues and he appears loathe to do so. The president who infamously uttered “read my lips: no new taxes” before raising them and who halted the U.S. military at the Kuwait/Iraq border is not easily paired with the president whose biggest domestic legacies include the “Bush tax cuts” and who set the stage for many of the current Middle East troubles with our eight year war in Iraq.
Donald Trump has added to Jeb’s woes, but also given him an organizing principle that avoids the George Bush quagmire. Although Trump has clearly rattled Bush, with Trump’s “low energy” cracks appearing to unnerve Bush, he’s also something for Bush to oppose and contrast himself with. Saying that voters will ultimately want to see “strength of character … ideas … record” in their chosen candidate Bush dismisses “great talkers” as not up to the job. Bush is clear in acknowledging that his path depends on voters rejecting Trump and his oratory, saying that “talking about ideas and about leadership and about experience is my path out.” There’s a high chance that there isn’t a “path out” for Bush, but he’s found a prospective path to pursue that largely takes him away from the challenges presented by the Georges Bush.
Bush’s lengthy Friday night opening focused on foreign policy, with a mix of criticizing of President Obama, lamenting the world role of the United States today, describing actions he’ll take to counter Iran and declaring that it’s the “first priority of the next president … to rebuild the military.” Calling for “peace through strength” Bush attacked Obama, although in less strident terms than many of his fellow candidates use. Saying that he’s “not ascribing bad motives to the president” Bush described him as the “divider-in-chief” given to “grandiose talk” but little action.
“if you’re looking for a yapper … I’m not your guy” said Bush, managing to dismiss a substantial number of his opponents without naming any as he moved to some domestic issues. Touting his self-ascribed nickname of “Veto Corleone” Bush urged the approval of a balanced budget amendment, via constitutional convention if necessary, and said that as president he would produce private sector job growth and government workforce reductions as he did while governor of Florida. Describing himself as having a “servant’s heart”, Bush told his audience “I hope that you sense the passion I have to serve.”
Audience questions ranged from supportive to inquisitive. One man said that this was the “fifth or sixth” Bush event he’s attended and that he has “seen you grow pretty significantly.” He then asked how Bush can “break through” in a time of “policy v. personality.” Another man asked Bush about studying Trump’s “magic” and “success” for lessons. Some questions were fairly standard, such as asking about Bush’s tax plan and whether he supports term congressional limits (“[p]raise the Lord, I do to” replied a fist-pumping, arm-waving Bush after a brief exchange over the woman’s “Pat Benahtahhh” t-shirt).
Less typical questions included whether he’ll commit to increasing funding for “PEPFAR”, which provides AIDS treatment in Africa, why he doesn’t heed Pentagon reports describing climate change as a national security issue, how he would confront the food industry over unhealthy products and whether he would have made the prisoner exchange for Bowe Bergdahl (“No. No.” was followed a more nuanced acknowledgement that there may be meaningful non-public information and therefor he should be “cautious” with a “based on what I know” rejection).
Obama antipathy was unambiguous, but much more temperate than at many other candidate events. One questioner described himself as “really fed up” with Obama acting by executive order, asking what Bush saw as the proper division of actions to do or not do “with a pen and a phone.” Another asked how Bush would foster bipartisan cooperation in Washington.
Illustrating the cross-currents of his family presidential relationships and their legacies, a questioner asked if Bush is willing to commit to telling Turkey to stop attacking the Kurds and to stop Saudi Arabia’s funding of madrassas throughout the Middle East. Neither the man nor Bush mentioned the Kurdish massacre after George H.W. Bush refused to aid them in the 1991 uprising he called for and neither mentioned the long relationship between the Saudi royal family and the Bush family. Instead the “anti-Trump” Bush deftly turned his answer to a Trump-focus, asking how can we expect the Islamic Kurds to play an important helpful role in defeating ISIS while implementing a Trump ban on all Muslims entering the U.S.
Video – Here is the complete Jeb Bush town hall: