It long ago became an article of faith among most political pundits that Jeb Bush – once the purported front-runner for the Republican nomination – has seen his chances almost completely evaporate. Conservatives never really warmed to his candidacy, but a series of less-than-stellar debate performances led the chattering class to desert him in droves. As one critic put it after Jeb’s low-energy, anything-but-smooth debate performance in the third Republican debate last October, “Yeah, Jeb Bush is probably toast.” But is he?
To get a better handle on the state of Jeb’s campaign, your intrepid blogger attended a recent Bush event in Bow, New Hampshire. I came away thinking that if this is the Jeb! that New Hampshire voters are seeing at every event, it might be time to move him from the intensive-care ward and into the candidate rehabilitation room. Of course, it is dangerous to generalize from a single case study, and there’s no guarantee the patient will fully recover from his early campaign wounds, but the Jeb! I saw seemed like anything but toast. Here is my report.
We arrived at the elementary school in Bow just in time to see Jeb! whiz by us in his black SUV, followed by a couple of other identical makes of vehicles. After grabbing the usual handful of campaign swag (my favorite item is a cool “#1 Jeb! Fan” hand fan) we hurried into the room (in contrast to the Donald’s events, there was no security search here) and moved to our preferred position in the back, near the media. This was our view.
The room was full – I estimate about 200 people – and seemed to lean toward a slightly older crowd, although there was a healthy mix of ages. In a reminder that Jeb! has the backing of parts of the Republican Party establishment (he still leads all Republican candidates in endorsements), he was introduced by former New Hampshire Governor, and later Senator, Judd Gregg. Gregg noted that he supported Jeb! for three reasons: he can win the general election, he knows the issues, and he will be able to govern by working with the opposition. Jeb! then took the floor and, after thanking New Hampshire voters for taking this process so seriously he introduced his wife Columba. Although spouses and family often figure in candidates’ campaign speeches, this was the first event we attended in which the candidate spouse was there in person. Jeb! recounted how he felt like he had been struck by “a lightning bolt” when he first met Columba (presumably in a good way) and that he thereafter divided his life into BC (Before Columba) and AC (After). “I recommend love at first sight,” he gushed. (Note: all quotes are based on contemporaneous tweets and notes taken during the talk and may be slightly paraphrased.)
He then launched into his campaign spiel. “I admit it. I’m a policy wonk,” he began, before referencing his website. Like many Republican candidates, but in contrast to the Democrats, the first policy issue he addressed was the war on terror. After noting that the country was on the wrong track, he referenced a recent speech he gave at the Citadel (the South Carolina military academy) in which he promised the cadets that, as President, he “would have their backs.” That meant rebuilding the military by increasing troops levels to 400,000, improving force readiness (“one half don’t reach that level now”), modernizing the air force (“many of our planes are older than the pilots”), reforming military procurement, but also caring for our returning veterans (a theme he returned to later in the talk). The world, he argued, needs the U.S. to take a leadership role, but “our current president is leading from behind.” Jeb! noted that disagreeing with the President’s military policy did not make him a “war monger” or an advocate for “occupation” in the Mideast. Instead, he was following the Reagan-Bush principle of “peace through strength” which he contrasted with the “Obama-Clinton” foreign policy. He also took a shot at Clinton for her lack of transparency regarding Benghazi and her “What difference does it make?” comment designed to push back against congressional inquiries into what happened there.
Jeb then moved to domestic politics, arguing that the country needed someone who could “change the culture” in Washington, DC and “build consensus.” “I’ve stopped watching cable television,” he noted, to applause, “except for football.” (Here he made the obligatory positive reference to Tom Brady and the Patriots.) To change that culture, he advocated for term limits (“It works in Florida”), and the line-item veto (“In Florida, they called me ‘Veto Corleone’”). He cited his record as governor, noting a 30% increase in general revenues even though Florida “has no income tax”, and an increase in the state’s bond rating to AAA under his leadership. “We made government live within its mean,” he boasted. He went on to advocate fixing the federal tax code, pushing for regulatory reform and encouraging energy development. “We need to make government smaller and more accountable.”
Bush then finished by describing his leadership ethos, and indirectly contrasting it with Trump’s. He has “a servant’s heart” which he said signified strength, not weakness. In contrast, he noted, it is not a position of strength to disparage “women, Hispanics” and a “war hero” like John McCain. Nor is “insulting the disabled.” He finished on an uplifting theme, arguing that “life is a gift from God…divinely inspired” and that we need to work together to create more prosperity, love and concern for others, and the freedom to pursue one’s dream. “Don’t believe the cable shows,” he urged his audience, noting that New Hampshire voters, who take their role seriously, can make a difference in this election. He concluded by “humbly asking for your support.”
In all, his opening remarks took maybe 15 minutes. The remaining 50 minute or so was spent answering questions, which covered issues ranging from early child care (Bush noted that in Florida pre-K attendance is the highest in the country, and he advocated shifting educational revenues from federal control to block grants to states); the role of nuclear weapons (Here Bush noted Trump’s evident ignorance regarding what the nuclear triad referred to and, while acknowledging that a nuclear-free world is a laudable aspiration, argued that “we can’t unilaterally disarm” in the face of nuclear dangers from North Korea, Pakistan and Iran); and income inequality. To this last question Bush argued that, “It’s not income inequality that is the concern …the challenge is to encourage economic mobility” which can be done through policies designed to encourage marriage – “encouraging marriage is not politically incorrect” – increasing the reward for work – “median income is down $2,300 since Obama became president” – and improving opportunity by reforming education. To improve the economy, Bush would repeal Obamacare and replace it with a system that focuses on catastrophic coverage and empowers consumers to make cost-conscious health decisions, rather than imposing costs on employers as is now the case. He would also double the middle-income tax exemption as part of his simplification of the tax code.
Other questions dealt with how to make politics more inclusive (“We have to recognize changing demographics….I won with Hispanics in Florida…by campaigning with my arms wide open….”); saving Social Security (Bush would keep current eligibility requirements in place until 2022 and then gradually raise the eligibility age, but he would also encourage private savings by making it easier for small businesses to offer 401k’s – “We need to promote financial literacy”); college student debt (“Move to Florida!….we have the lowest tuition in the country!” he boasted, before advocating a new student loan repayment policy based on income); helping veterans readjust to civilian life (“We need to be more proactive” by working with veterans to develop job opportunities six months before they are scheduled to leave the service); and climate change and the declining moose population caused by a growth in ticks (“I believe climate change is happening and people play a role” but too often the media ignores the fact that carbon emissions have been going down because of a shift in energy sources to natural gas and greater reliance on more efficient cars). Bush would support more research into alternative energy sources, but opposes a carbon tax that would hurt the middle class. “We need to be good stewards of the environment” he summarized, but not at the cost of economic prosperity.
The final set of questions dealt with gun violence – this question came from what looked to be a nine- or ten-year old boy – here Bush distinguished between terrorist-based shootings like San Bernardino and civilian mass shootings like Sandy Hook, arguing that more local police and community vigilance was needed to prevent the former, and more research into mental health in order to promote earlier intervention to prevent the mentally ill from gaining access to guns rather than restricting gun rights to prevent the latter; another question on student loans; a question about negative campaigning – here the questioner praised Bush for not going negative, to which Bush responded, “Well, I’ll attack Donald Trump!”; and finally a question regarding how Bush’s proposal to raise the Social Security retirement age would affect Medicare eligibility. Bush replied, “I don’t know!” but promised to find out and to call the questioner personally with an answer later that day.
After the Q&A Bush waded into the crowd to field more questions while I looked for crowd reactions. I asked a woman next to me, who looked to be in her 70’s, what she thought. She replied, almost giddily, “He was fantastic!” And, in fact, he was quite good, particularly when compared to his debate performances. At this event Jeb’s presentation was animated, clear and concise even while discussing policy at a deeper level of detail that Trump does not come close to matching. At the same time, he was witty – he told a funny story about his mother donning football gear in preparation for responding to Trump’s personal attack on her family – and responded to questions with a laid-back, conversational yet clearly articulated style that stood in sharp contrast to his halting, sometimes incoherent debate responses. I felt like I was finally getting a glimpse of the politician who proved so successful in Florida.
But will the transformation – if that’s what it is – be enough to save his candidacy, or are the pundits’ pronouncements of his obituary already baked into public opinion? For what it is worth – and I always caution readers not to rely on a single data point – the latest poll out of New Hampshire has Bush “surging”* into second place, trailing only Trump by 35%-18%. Of course, it’s impossible to know whether this is a trend or an outlier – the HuffingtonPost aggregate polling chart still has him back in the pack in 5th place in the Granite State with only 8.2% of the aggregate vote.
I have long argued to my students and readers that Bush is playing a long game, hoping that his resources – he leads all candidates not named Trump in combined direct and Super Pac contributions – and party backing – he also leads in endorsements – will allow him to survive while his main rivals – Christie, Kasich and Rubio – are winnowed from the field in New Hampshire, South Carolina and in the southern-dominated March 1 Super Tuesday primaries. That would stand him in good stead to consolidate their support as the nominating campaign then moves north to what is presumably more favorable political terrain for a moderate candidate. There’s no guarantee that this is a viable strategy, however. Instead, it may be Bush that will be winnowed, and that one of the other three emerges as the party favorite in the next month. Certainly that is the prevailing wisdom among most pundits.
One thing is almost certain: Bush likely will not do well in Iowa; current polls there, which admittedly are not always reliable, have him buried in single digits. But that won’t matter if he emerges in second place in New Hampshire. For Jeb! supporters, and for his opponents too, all eyes are on the Granite state.
*Try as I might, I cannot get the link to the actual polling internal data to open, which makes me even less willing to put much stock in the results.
Addendum: 8:00 – The Emerson poll internals are now available on line. It is worth noting that it is an automated poll.
Addendum 1:11 p.m. As I was uploading this post, a second NH poll of likely Republican primary voters came online. In it, Bush is bunched in a virtual tie for second place with Christie and Kasich at about 12%. That trails the Donald by 15%, and is about two points ahead of Rubio.