Live from New Hampshire: Jeb Bush eats eggs! And then talks about policy

Jeb Bush impresses New Hampshire politicos before heading to the biggest campaign cattle call yet

By Jim Newell
Published April 17, 2015 4:50PM (EDT)
  (AP/David Goldman)
(AP/David Goldman)

Greetings from Nashua, New Hampshire, on the first day of the First in the Nation Republican Leadership Summit. Your trusty Salon political correspondent is here, just sort of meandering about, in accordance with the journalistic doctrine of YOLO.

The confab, organized by the New Hampshire Republican Party, is intended to be an unofficial kickoff of the 2016 New Hampshire primary campaign on the Republican side. Though if it's organized by the official Republican party, maybe it's an official kickoff? Who knows. Who's to say? Let's call it "CPAC North." The point is, all these candidates have schlepped up to this Crowne Plaza for a day of speeches, and so did we.

The morning schedule on Friday, the first session of the two-day conference, is filled with... let's call it the B Team. The warm-up act that warms no one. No offense meant to former New York Gov. George Pataki, two-time Connecticut senatorial runner-up Linda McMahon,"Dennis Michael Lynch, Entrepreneur and Film Producer," etc. But we had other things to do Friday Morning... like watching Jeb Bush eat breakfast! Don't ever let people tell you that the campaign trail doesn't offer its once-in-a-lifetime thrills.

Bush was the featured guest at this edition of Politics & Eggs, a breakfast gathering organized the New England Council featuring big New Hampshire muckamuck businessman, political leaders, representatives from nearby chapters of the military-industrial complex, and even a couple "everyday New Hampshirites." Held at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics on the grounds of Saint Anselm College, outside Manchester, the event allows candidates to introduce themselves and then field occasionally interesting questions.

Jeb Bush is a smart guy. (Though we should say not smart enough to know that he needs to iron out the creases of his brand new dress shirt after unfolding it. GAFFE! He's finished.) He really does go on and on about policy specifics in the topics that interest him, and you get the sense that he would've fielded as many questions as possible if he didn't have other events to attend. It's a refreshing display from a primary field whose other members largely screech red-meat fearmongering nonsense about Barack Obama's intention to nuke Israel.

One shouldn't confuse Bush's understanding of federal policy for political naivety, though. He knows how to hedge.

Consider one attendee, who represents manufacturers of ATVs and other small engine vehicles. What started out as a tailored tiny-industry specific question ended up being something much bigger. The questioner argued that 10 percent ethanol blend fuels are corrosive to engines. Does he support continuing the Renewable Fuel Standard? In other words: do you support cutting off this federal welfare pipeline to Iowa agribusiness?

Otherwise staunch defenders of the free market would cut off their rights before allowing this special favor to Iowa industry to lapse. "Don’t mess with RFS," the nine-million-term Iowa governor, Terry Branstad, said at an agricultural summit last month. "It is the Holy Grail," unfortunate Iowa Rep. Steve King said, "and I will defend it." (Steve King is also at this New Hampshire summit today. Why? No one knows.)

Bush fought back against the assertion that 10% ethanol fuels are bad, saying they don't negatively affect automobile engines. Iowa cheers! But then he said that the RFS should be phased out. Iowa BOOS! Then he threw in a heavily emphasized "gradually." Iowa... Iowa says "ugh, okay, fine, he has to please free-market ideologues, but we'll make sure we just hire a lot of lobbyists to ensure that plan never goes through." Everyone's a winner.

On immigration reform, another topic that warms his heart, Bush -- who's perceived as some sort of trafficker personally driving undocumented immigrants into the country under the cover of night -- stuck to the hedged position that, well, most of the viable GOP field has rallied around to render the whole debate moot. Secure the border, put in place an effective E-Verify system, undo President Obama's tyrannical executive actions deferring deportations, and then establish an eventual "earned" path to legalization -- not a "path to citizenship," Bush said explicitly -- for those 11 million undocumented immigrants already here.

Education is also a tricky issue for Bush. He's confronted serious criticism from conservatives over his support for Common Core school standards, which don't recognize popular social conservative homeschooling history classes about Jesus riding dinosaurs, etc. On education, Bush tried to emphasize other, non-Common Core elements of the so-called reform agenda, like the importance of standardized testing and crushing teachers' unions. (He also threw in some nationalistic bluster about the need for "civics education" to return front and center to the classroom. That means you're on the chopping-block, radical leftist new AP History textbook.) But after all the emphasis about how he, if he runs, wants to keep pushing his education reform agenda, he's very hesitant to suggest that the federal government should even be involved in education. "We're not going to create a national school board," he emphasized. How does he intend to achieve his education goals as the top federal officeholder if he's too timid about wielding federal power to affect broad education policy?

On social insurance: Social Security and Medicare cuts are on the way. He supports gradually raising the retirement age for Social Security, for the benefit of our grandchildren, blah blah blah. The old people in attendance cheered, because of course they're not going to lose a penny of the benefits they've been promised. Their grandchildren, whose financial security they care so deeply about, are the ones who will see their benefits slashed.

In a press gaggle afterwords I tried to ask Bush if he supported Chris Christie's plan to aggressively means-test the program, and thus end it as a universal program. Sadly, I was outshouted with questions about whether the country is "ready for a woman president," and whether he feels as though Marco Rubio has "stabbed him in the back." I will try better and louder, later, for good of the country.

Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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