Years ago, Barbara Bush is said to have commented that son Jeb was the best politician in the family. That’s the side of the former Florida governor that I saw in New Hampshire on Friday morning at the Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College. The hall was filled to overflowing and the boyish looking, shirt-sleeved soon-to-be Presidential candidate delivered a well-received speech and fielded questions for more than half an hour. He was self-assured without being canned, he was approachable, with self-deprecating humor, easy to listen to. That sense of being natural stands in contrast to other candidates on both sides of the aisle.
While I don’t agree with everything he said, Jeb Bush comes across as someone who is experienced and focused and comfortable acknowledging when he doesn’t have the answer to a specific question. He’s a father and grandfather but still youthful. Bush presents himself as a firm believer that core conservative principles are what lift people up. But his support of Common Core standards in education (as governor, he raised education standards in Florida) and his commitment to immigration reform (giving illegals a path to legal status) put him at odds with those who vote in Republican primaries and caucuses.
So, too, with his belief that the economy will benefit from investment in roads, bridges and water infrastructure, and that government should support research on disease (through the NIH) and the space program. (Florida, of course, is home to Cape Canaveral.) Bush is very un-Ted Cruz in declaring that “creating a climate of discovery and adventure provide people hope.” He speaks intriguingly about the need to bring people together using patience and humility .
The national media were all over this event, as they have blanketed the GOP candidates in New Hampshire this weekend. The most widely reported comments he made were in response to my question about whether, with the advantage of hindsight, he would handle the Terry Schiavo case any differently. (Schiavo had been in a persistent vegetative state for years. Her husband wanted to withdraw life support, saying she would not have wanted to live that way. Her parents fought his decision. Then-Governor Bush intervened on behalf of the parents, shepherding through a new law to stop the husband. Court after court said the state’s action was unconstitutional, and the husband was allowed to act on what he said were Terry’s wishes.)
Bush averred he would do nothing differently, but he seemed to have given the matter a lot of consideration and talked about the need for end-of-life directives. In fact, he said, filling out such a form should be a prerequisite for receiving Medicare. The point is that, while I may have been disappointed that he hadn’t changed his mind about the Schiavo case, he gave a sense that he had been thoughtful about the issue and was seeking answers to a difficult situation.
While Jeb Bush is perfectly comfortable talking about his life story, he tries to position himself as his own man, using self-deprecating humor to deflect charges of “W” redux and dynastic entitlement.
At our New England Council breakfast, foreign policy was not front and center. This is likely to be a more important area this year. Bush appears to be pulling his advisers together from a group of his father’s moderates and his brother’s neoconservative hawks, designed to give primary zealots enough red meat for the nomination. I assume his backward-looking approach toward Cuba is part of that dance. How far right he will go to win the nomination is unclear. If he’s successful, he’ll pivot to the center. But as we’ve learned with Obama and other winning candidates, what’s said to win is often at odds with how they’ll govern. When unexpected crises arise, character and good judgment can matter more than ideology and promises.
Despite his assurances of his abiding deep conservatism, many don’t believe him and dismiss him as a RINO. In a recent Bloomberg poll, 42 percent of Republicans and independents said they wouldn’t consider voting for Jeb Bush just because he is a Bush or because he’s not conservative enough.
Of more consequence to his prospects may be the “independent” super PAC that can raise unlimited money from undisclosed donors, according to the NY Times, operating as an independent “social welfare” organization but run by a Bush friend and former staff member.
This is still early. There were 18 other would-be Republican nominees who showed up yesterday for a panel in Nashua, New Hampshire eager to take him and each other on. It will take months for the field to shake out. Yet, in surveying the lot of them, Jeb Bush is much more appealing than I expected him to be.
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