“You’re here to hear a humble candidate,” Jeb Bush began at a town hall-style discussion in Henderson, Nevada, this weekend, and then spent the next hour behaving that way.
The former Florida governor and Republican presidential hopeful described his son George P. Bush, who is the Texas land commissioner, as “much better than me” in wowing crowds. He assured the audience that he’d be making some mistakes on the campaign trail, “operating outside my comfort zone,” well beyond GOP strongholds.
And he drew a big laugh from the about 300 people who filled all of the seats but only half of the space in the gym of a parks-and-rec center here, 20 minutes south of the Las Vegas strip, with a self-deprecating aside about his knowledge of the leading local industry: “If we don't try to broaden out the map” by appealing to Hispanics in particular, he said of his party, “we're going to have to win with an inside straight, to use a Vegas term. Inside straight flush or whatever…I'm not a big gambler so I don't know any gambling—does that sound stupid when you say that?”
When one woman in the audience asked what he’d say to win over her daughter who supports gun control, he looked into the phone camera she was using to record his answer and said, “I humbly ask for your support and hope you agree with me on other issues.”
But while some supporters have complained privately that he might be a little too humble—and ought to stop apologizing for not being a snazzier campaigner before he convinces people that he’s right—he did not lack the confidence to disagree with certain questioners. And he was not at all meek immediately after the event, showing his irritation with a pro-immigration activist who asked him a question and then snapping at a young aide who was about to lead him outside to do a news conference right where a handful of protesters were waiting for him.
“I just want to do my press conference—not other people’s,” Bush told the aide, shaking his head in disbelief right in front of a bunch of reporters. “And I want to go home,” he added.
Still shaking his head in pique, he then led reporters back to the room they’d just been in and took a handful of questions, beginning with one in Spanish about Donald Trump’s recent comments describing Mexican immigrants as rapists, murderers, and drug dealers. Trump spends his life fighting with people, Bush answered in Spanish. And he doesn’t, Bush said, represent the values of the Republican Party.
During Bush’s earlier remarks in the gym, he’d said that his campaign strategy was to go everywhere, answer every question, and say the same thing in every venue, too, instead of tailoring his message to please this or that audience or staying inside what he suggested was his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s cozy, invitation-only cocoon.
But when Bush was asked the same question about Trump’s remarks in English, he seemed put out at having to repeat himself, then gave a milder version of his original answer: “I don’t agree with him. I think he’s wrong. It’s pretty simple.”
So if he really plans to go outside his comfort zone and reach out to Hispanic voters, he was asked, then why had he come to a place like Henderson that’s overwhelmingly white? He is, he replied, campaigning for the Republican nomination—and isn’t leaving anybody out.
On the issue of gun violence, he insisted that not one gun- control measure President Barack Obama has proposed would have prevented any of the mass shootings of recent years. Dylann Roof, who has been charged with nine counts of murder in the Charleston church killings, already had a drug possession charge pending and had been reported to police after alarming the employees of a local mall by asking when they closed and how many people work there. But according to some reports he bought a .45-caliber pistol legally in April because the drug charge was a misdemeanor. Obama and much of the public—90 percent, according to a 2013 study—support enhanced background checks, but it’s not clear that such checks would have kept Roof from getting a gun. Bush said his state of Florida does require background checks but, when pressed, said that no, it does not require such checks on private sales.
Bush’s whole demeanor was different—warmer and more winning—throughout the town hall-style discussion. “Come here and give me a hug,” he said to a Hispanic man who said he’d just switched his registration from Democratic to Republican. Bush joked about being one of 65 Republican presidential candidates, and came off as genuinely enjoying the process. Every day, he said, “I wake up and think, ‘Wow, I’m running for president.’”
He also seemed to impress the audience by daring to disagree with certain questioners. To someone who asked whether he intended to “give citizenship to all those illegals,” he said he supported a balanced approach that does include a path to citizenship for some, but would allow us to better pick and choose which immigrants we want and which we don't. The crowd applauded when he said, “I don’t think we’re going to be the kind of country that puts people on boxcars and sends them away.”
A man stepped to the microphone in a tuxedo, and turned out to be an impersonator of the “Grandpa” character from the old Munsters TV show. “Oh my God, yeah,” Bush said in recognition. He shut Grandpa down when the man began to explain that he was there to argue that “we’re gonna throw the grandma that’s running off the cliff.”
“No, no,” we’re not, Bush told him, then turned away. “Only in Vegas. What can I say?”
He defended Common Core, without ever using that term, saying that “the federal government ought to be your partner for reforms” in education.
And he made the case for encouraging what his father, George H.W. Bush, called a “kinder, gentler nation” in his 1988 speech accepting his party’s presidential nomination. “There’s a lot of reasons why people are upset,” Jeb Bush said, “but don’t you want to win?”
“I’m not here to make a point” but to get elected, he continued. He was making a point, though, of course—that some of his rivals breathe too much fire to win over any Democrats in next year’s general election. “I’m not an angry person,” he said, and “I don’t think people want to support someone who just tells them how bad things are.”
“The harsher voices on our side are the ones people hear” on immigration, he said at another point. “I intend to be constructive.”
To a young man who asked about the high cost of higher education and the crushing burden of college debt, particularly to sometimes unscrupulous private lenders, he allowed that Obamacare had made the private companies who’ve taken advantage of students less of a problem. “Obamacare effectively nationalized the student loan program,” he said.
Part of the problem of the high cost of college, he said, comes from so many students taking so long to graduate. He didn’t have that problem as a young man, he recalled, because “I met my wife in high school…I fell so crazy in love, graduated in two and a half years,” and had a singular focus: “How can I convince her to marry me and then have babies?”
These days on campus, he said, students have “the French work week. It’s not the kids’ fault,” though, but that of their school administrators, who now consider a full course load 12 credit hours instead of 15.
Bush said he was running not on the basis of soaring oratory but on his record as governor of Florida, where he cut taxes and fired government workers. “Compare that to Washington, D.C.,” he said, “where no one gets fired for anything.”
He also bragged that Florida led the nation in job growth during his tenure, “more than in Texas. If you see Rick Perry wandering around here, remind him of that, or my brother. That wouldn’t bother me a bit.” (A recent Washington Post story said Bush “owes a large amount of that success—well more than half, at least—to the housing bubble that popped as he was leaving office, leaving Florida in deep and prolonged recession.”)
After answering the last question from the audience, he ended the session this way: “Listen,” he told the crowd, “I gotta go home to Miami.”
Still, he seemed to have all the time in the world as he posed for pictures with voters. And when he fumbled in snapping a picture himself—“Where’s the picture-taking on this thing?”—he came off as less unfortunately out-of-touch than his father was accused of being after the New York Times reported during his 1992 race that he seemed not to know what a grocery scanner was. (He said he did so know what the gadget was, but had just been making small talk with the clerk by asking about it.) If Poppy’s son really is the last American who isn’t skilled at taking selfies, though, that might be something of a selling point.
Then, alas, his affability evaporated. But no one could argue that his open impatience with that aide made him look too humble.
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