Former Florida governor takes lighthearted digs at pope and his brother during New Hampshire visit but limits attacks on Obama to president’s Isis strategy
Jeb Bush officially took to the campaign trail and immediately pitched himself to voters on Tuesday as the most seasoned executive among the Republican party’s now dozen presidential hopefuls, declaring himself one of the few candidates who “actually did things”.
One day after officially launching his presidential bid, Bush took on Barack Obama over the Islamic State, the pope over climate change and even his brother. But he mostly stuck with a tone of optimism, touting his own record as the governor of Florida, beginning to build the case for why he is best suited to steer the country away from what he dubbed failed Democratic priorities.
“People are stuck. The progressive agenda – it sounds good and it’s alluring, but now we see what it looks like and it’s ugly,” Bush said at an opera house in the south of this early battleground state, before some 340 attendees at a town hall-style meeting.
“How do we create a high-growth strategy so that people can be lifted up again?” he added. “I know how it’s done, because I’ve done it. I did it as governor. I cut taxes every year. I reduced the government workforce by 13,000 – that’s kind of hard to do, but I did it by reforming how government works.
Despite a rocky build-up to the formal launch of his campaign – including staff changes, uncertainty over meeting his own lofty fundraising goals, and the ghost of his brother’s Iraq war – Bush appeared poised, relaxed and jovial. Sporting a light blue button-up shirt, rolled up at the sleeves, he even cracked jokes at the expense of George W Bush while selling his managerial experience.
“If you ever see my good friend Rick Perry or even my brother, George W, tell them we created more jobs in Florida,” Bush said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
At times the younger Bush sounded a lot like Perry, the former Texas governor who is seeking the Republican nomination once again after a failed bid in 2012. Perry has spent recent months taking swipes at a group of first-term Republican senators running for president, calling for “less talking and more doing”.
Bush struck a similar tone on Tuesday, pointing out there were “a lot of people that are really good at talking” in the ever-growing Republican field. (Billionaire Donald Trump joined moments before Bush took the stage.)
“I didn’t file an amendment and call that success. I actually did things as governor,” said Bush, whose rivals include a man he once mentored – Florida senator Marco Rubio.
Bush and Rubio have insisted they remain good friends, although Bush acknowledged in an interview with Fox News before the town hall that it was “a little awkward” to be running against each other.
“But that’s just the way it is. He’s a great guy,” Bush said.
After brief remarks, Bush spent nearly an hour answering a wide range of questions – 16 in total – at length and with a willingness to be candid if necessary.
Bush told one woman concerned about the growing influence of money in politics that he would not support the idea of providing a tax credit for small-dollar political donations.
Unlike many of his Republican opponents, Bush noticeably did not spend much time criticizing Obama – choosing instead to promote his own self-described “provocative” ideas for reforming the tax code and peeling back government regulations.
His biggest critique of the current administration was in response to a question on how to stop Isis militants.
“This president has literally said twice in the last year that we don’t have a strategy. Really? Well, who’s supposed to be in charge? That’s what presidents do: presidents create strategies,” Bush said, calling the emergence of Isis “a long-haul threat” that would require the US to be engaged in Iraq and Syria – although not combat troops, he was quick to note.
Bush was also asked about a threat of an entirely different nature: climate change, namely Pope Francis’s upcoming encyclical on the issue.
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“I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from bishops or my cardinals or my pope,” Bush said.
The response resonated well with Ernst Kastning, a 71-year-old retired geologist who attended the town hall and told the Guardian after that he was impressed by what he heard.
“As a geologist, I’m very concerned about the global climate issue. The other candidates see it as a battle between the Environmental Protection Agency and business,” said Kastning, who said he was pleased to see Bush showing up with more than an anti-Obama pitch.
“I think a lot of the other candidates right now are getting sound bites. They’re grandstanding, they’re grousing about what Obama has not done,” he said. “[Bush] did a little of that, but that’s natural. I favor a candidate that’s willing to talk about getting things done with the other side … I heard details here that really impressed me – specifics.”
New Hampshire is known for voters like Kastning – pragmatic and independent-minded, to the point that license plates on cars here bear the state’s “Live Free or Die!” motto. It’s precisely why political watchers say Bush, a candidate who has cautiously tested the waters in these early primary stages without doling out much red meat to conservatives, could do well if he sticks to a more conciliatory tone.
The issue of same-sex marriage proved to be one such tricky area, twice emerging as a topic of discussion during Bush’s visit.
He was first pressed on the subject during a pre-taped interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity ahead of the town hall – and ahead of a US supreme court decision expected this month that could legalize same-sex marriage nationwide.
“I believe in traditional marriage. I hope the supreme court rules that way,” Bush said, while adding that Americans should not be discriminated against based on their sexual orientation.
An audience member later asked Bush about so-called “religious freedom” laws, which sparked controversy in Indiana and Arkansas earlier this year and saw the former governor then struggling to stake out a clear position.
“It got ugly because the world is ugly today. It’s really hard to have a deeper conversation in the public square these days,” Bush said of the national outcry after Indiana passed a law that opponents said effectively allowed businesses to refuse services to LGBT individuals. “I think we can protect religious freedom and not create a society that is intolerant … I think that we’re a big enough country, a tolerant enough country, to allow for both to exist.”
Bush is scheduled to visit other key early voting states this week, including Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada.
Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, is also on a swing through the same states this week and stopped in New Hampshire on Monday. Bush did not mention Clinton during his remarks at the town hall, but sharply criticized the former secretary of state’s foreign policy record during the interview with Hannity as “a complete failure”.
Pointing again to his experience at the helm of Florida, Bush said: “I’d put that record up against Hillary Clinton’s any day of the week.”