CONCORD, New Hampshire – Jeb Bush is betting that the best cure to a divided party is a common enemy.
Speaking to a small crowd at the Snowshoe Club here, Bush levied a steady drumbeat of attacks on President Obama’s record, accusing him of restraining the economy, weakening national security, and running roughshod over the constitution.
Bush was in New Hampshire, the first in the nation primary state, ahead of a gathering of likely GOP presidential hopefuls this weekend. The Republican Leadership Summit, taking place Friday and Saturday in Nashua, was expected to draw most of the party's top names including Bush, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and many others.
It wasn’t all red meat, though. Bush declined to call on Republicans to block Obama’s Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch, saying he favored “deference to the executive” when possible on nominees. “Based on demeanor, [she] doesn’t appear she has a record that would be as punitive as what Eric Holder acted on,” he said.
But, Bush added, Obama’s appointees are “one part political hack and one part academic.”
When it came to the economy, an area where Obama is now polling more favorably than not for the first time in years, Bush derided the “so-called recovery” for not producing higher wages.
“My belief is this president wants to get deals for his legacy whether its Iran or Cuba,” Bush said after a question on the administration’s rapprochement with the Castro regime. “He’s negotiating without getting any concessions in return.”
That went over well enough. But for every punch Bush took at the president on their disagreements, it seemed he had to defend himself from tough questions on where they agree.
At the top of the list: immigration. “By doing nothing we lose elections and we have tepid growth,” Bush said, making the case for reform that includes a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants. “You can’t self-deport,” he added, referring to Mitt Romney’s 2012 prescription, because “that’s just not an American value.”
That wasn’t good enough for Charles Pewitt of Concord, who challenged Bush to defend his support for immigration reform along the lines of the Senate’s “illegal alien mass amnesty surge bill,” which Pewitt warned was flooding America with competition for jobs. “I respect your view, but I don’t have to agree to it,” Bush, who argued that immigrant labor would boost GDP rather than increase unemployment, told Pewitt.
On education, Bush took a question on his support for Common Core standards – an issue deeply unpopular with conservative activists – and again stood by his position. But he pivoted to another attack on the president for encouraging states to adopt standards through a competitive grant program, Race to the Top. “Here’s the problem: The federal government indirectly got involved in it in a way that, given this president made people very nervous,” Bush said. “The solution to this is for states who don’t want to be in Common Core because its poisonous politically ... fine, create your own higher standards.”
Bush pre-empted one of the leading criticisms of his candidacy, telling the audience he would need to find ways to separate himself from his brother and father’s presidential records even as he praised their service. “I have to prove I’m not running for president … to try to break the tie between the Adams family and the Bush family,” he said. “That really isn’t my motivation, but I have to prove that.”
The former Florida governor will face a stiff challenge from one of his longtime political allies in Rubio, who announced his official candidacy in Miami on Monday. Bush said he hadn’t seen the speech. “I love Marco, he’s a great guy,” he said.
As for Hillary Clinton, Bush’s just-announced Democratic would-be rival for the presidency, Bush’s shots were only indirect. One voter asked him whether he ate at Chipotle, where Clinton was filmed eating the other day on her campaign road trip. “Yeah I go to [Chipotle],” he told a voter. “The one on US 1. Drive my own car. Park my own car.”
Food was a hot topic for Bush as he finished up the event. To the delight of his hosts, the svelte undeclared 2016er broke his famed Paleo Diet for a piece of local pie at the event. “To hell with the diet!” he said, digging in for a bite.