Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush waits backstage before speaking at the Iowa Agriculture Summit, March 7, 2015, in Des Moines, Ia.
Photo by Charlie Neibergall/AP

Time to reconsider Jeb’s reputation as a ‘wonk’

Updated
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush delivered a big foreign policy speech a few weeks ago, and unfortunately for the Republican presidential hopeful, it featured a few noticeable stumbles. Bush misidentified countries; he mispronounced names; he flubbed the size of ISIS’ fighting force; and he got the U.S. military budget wrong, among other things.
 
But the same day, Ari Fleischer nevertheless told the New York Times, “Jeb is very much a policy wonk and comes across that way.”
 
No, actually he doesn’t. In fact, at times, Bush gives largely the opposite impression.
 
But it seems the former governor is managing to develop a wonk-ish reputation among reporters anyway. After a campaign event on Friday night, Politico ran this headline: “Jeb Bush wonks out in New Hampshire.”
It was Jeb Bush the conservative, optimistic wonk who showed up in New Hampshire on Friday after a 15-year absence from the first-in-the-nation primary state.
 
In remarks shot through with policy details and optimism about the potential for growth and innovation to solve the country’s problems, Bush emphasized the conservative sides of his positions on education and immigration and called for severe limits on the federal government’s role in fighting climate change at a half-house party, half-media circus at the home of former state Republican Party chairman Fergus Cullen late Friday.
I think part of the problem is grading on a curve. Is Jeb Bush a wonk compared to his brother? Sure. Does Jeb Bush seem more familiar with policy details than Rick Perry and Ben Carson? Most of the time, yes.
 
But let’s not be too eager to define “wonk” down.
 
As the former governor’s foreign policy speech helped prove, his comfort level with substantive details is, at best, suspect. The troubles continued on Friday.
In his remarks to the roughly 30 business leaders, Bush criticized Obama for failing to maintain a U.S. military presence in Iraq after 2010, repeating his assertion that the U.S. withdrawal allowed for the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). “Now we need to reengage with some small force level to continue to train the Iraqi army,” and to ensure that Sunni and Shia militias are united against the militant group.
 
Asked by reporters whether Obama’s deployment of thousands of U.S. troops to do just than was sufficient or whether he would call for even more American forces to be sent to Iraq, Bush said, “I don’t know.”
 
“I totally haven’t been briefed enough for that,” he added.
I’d put that in the “not good” category. Bush knew enough to repeat the prepared talking point about a key international issue, but asked a simple follow-up question, the candidate made it seem as if no one had yet told him what to say next.
 
The week before, Bush was confronted with a Dream Act kid, and when asked a pretty basic question for those familiar with the immigration debate, the Florida Republican seemed completely lost.
DREAMER: Will it be your priority to end DACA and DAPA?
 
BUSH: End what?
 
DREAMER: End DACA and DAPA.
 
BUSH: DACA? What is…
Jeb isn’t up to speed on net neutrality. He’s not up to speed on the Paycheck Fairness Act. He’s struggled when talking about the impact of the Affordable Care Act on jobs.
 
Look, it’s early in the process, and I suspect Bush will become more familiar with the issues as the campaign continues. He’ll do more interviews, talk to more voters, and host more Q&A sessions, which will no doubt help him brush up on specifics.
 
But in the meantime, the former governor, who hasn’t even campaigned for public office since 2002, seems a little rusty on policy details and the substance of many key debates. He’s making plenty of generic comments, without demonstrating an expertise on much of anything.
 
A variety of words come to mind to describe this, but “wonk” isn’t one of them.
 

Jeb Bush

Time to reconsider Jeb's reputation as a 'wonk'

Updated