BERLIN – Carrying the weight of two enormously consequential presidencies for U.S.-German relations on his back, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Tuesday played up common ground with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government on national security, trade and fiscal policy.
Speaking to a conference held by Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, Bush praised Germany’s support for sanctions against Russia over its interference in Ukraine, acknowledging that they had a greater negative impact on Germany’s economy than they did in America. Bush also called for NATO to take a hard line against Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Bush called a “ruthless pragmatist.”
“[Putin] will push until someone pushes back and I believe that’s NATO,” Bush said in a question-and-answer session after his remarks. “NATO’s responsibility is to do just that, particularly for NATO countries.”
German audiences are warier of saber-rattling than Bush’s usual Republican crowds, and Bush peppered in some more diplomatic notes, adding that the U.S. should be careful not to confront Putin “in a way that pushes Russia away for a generation of time” by alienating rank and file citizens.
Bush got what his campaign-in-waiting wanted out of the first leg of his European journey, which includes stops this week in Poland and Estonia. He received a friendly reception from an audience of center-right party members, a handshake with Merkel, and – most importantly – made no obvious slip-ups.
As Bush alluded to in his remarks, however, a more troublesome story was occurring back home, where news broke that Bush’s team was replacing its presumptive campaign manager, David Kochel, with GOP strategist Danny Diaz. The shuffle signaled uneasiness in Bush’s camp as their all-but-declared candidate has struggled to break out in a crowded GOP field despite being tagged as the establishment front-runner early in the year.
“I don’t know about the change in the campaign team,” Bush deadpanned after taking the stage on Tuesday. “I’ll find out about that, I guess, when I get back home.”
When NBC News’ Chris Jansing attempted to get additional comment from Bush, he attempted to walk away. Asked whether his current political team wasn’t working out, Bush said, “No, everything’s great.”
Perhaps the biggest single challenge Bush has confronted over the last few months has been how to distinguish himself from his father and brother while still proudly defending their records.
That dilemma was especially pronounced Tuesday in Germany, where, for better and worse, the Bush name carries a lot of weight. President George H.W. Bush, is lionized for supporting Germany’s reunification as the Cold War ended. President George W. Bush is associated with the Iraq War, which the German public ferociously opposed from the start.
“I personally liked [George W. Bush] a lot and I also supported his foreign policy agenda,” Phillip Missfelder, a member of the German Bundestag with Merkel’s CDU party, told NBC News ahead of Bush’s speech. “But most of the people in Germany don’t.”
When it came time for his remarks, Bush brought up one of his presidential relatives repeatedly, while another went unmentioned. You can probably guess which was which.
“I note as a point of personal pride that my dad, my father, the greatest man I’ve ever met, the greatest man alive, in my humble opinion, when he was president, worked very closely with [then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl] as East and West came together,” Bush said to thunderous applause from the audience. “That unification, as you all know, was not inevitable.”
The Iraq War never came up on Tuesday, but Bush seemed prepared when tough topics arose, like widespread German concerns about American spying in the wake of Edward Snowden-leaked evidence that the NSA tapped Merkel’s phone.
“The Snowden revelation created real problems in the relationship between Germany and the U.S. that I think needs to be fixed, because this relationship trumps everything else,” Bush said. The answer came in response to a question on whether he’d support an agreement to ban corporate espionage, a practice Bush assured the audience the U.S. government did not engage in. He added that America and Germany should have a “dialogue” about these issues in order to “create a climate of mutual cooperation.”
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Turning to the economy, Bush declared his enthusiastic support for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership in negotiations and hailed Germany’s insistence on austerity measures since the 2008 financial crisis.
“I can think of a few governments these days — my own comes to mind — that can learn from the German example of fiscal integrity,” he said.
Judging by the crowd’s reaction, Bush’s least popular remarks came in response to a question on whether he would support a binding international agreement on climate change, an issue where there’s far more momentum for government action in Germany than in the United States.
Bush said he was “not an expert on international agreements that are binding or not,” before noting that the Kyoto Protocols negotiated in 1998 faced overwhelming opposition in the Senate.
“We don’t have a great history on these things, but we do have a pretty good history of reducing carbon emissions in the U.S.,” he said.
As he’s done back home, Bush treaded carefully around the issue. He said that he might entertain some kind of agreement, but expressed concerns new regulations might stifle economic growth. He suggested that the free market might take care of the problem itself. Notably, Bush did not mention any of his opinions on the overwhelming scientific consensus that man contributes significantly to climate change, something he’s questioned in statements back home.