TALLINN – After a long week of briefings and visits with foreign leaders, businessmen, and reporters abroad, former Florida governor Jeb Bush comforted himself with thoughts of the brief respite that awaited him back home before Monday’s long-anticipated campaign launch.
“I need to sharpen the saw, I need to go to mass, I need to be with my grandkids,” Bush told NBC News’ Chris Jansing in a one-on-one interview after an information session with Estonian tech officials and entrepreneurs. “I just need to decompress a little bit. On Sunday, I get to do that and I’ve always found that to be important, and then Monday, just have fun – It’s going to be an exciting time. I’m really excited about this.”
One could understand if Bush felt he earned his one-day breather. After a string of visits abroad by Republican leaders marred by missteps and distractions, including former nominee Mitt Romney in 2012 and governors Chris Christie and Scott Walker in 2015, he managed to pull off a rare quiet success. Traveling through Germany, Poland, and Estonia, and facing a steady string of questions from American and foreign reporters alike, Bush managed to stick to his message that he would strengthen ties with Europe and protect allies from Russian aggression without major incident. That’s no small feat, especially given the intense added scrutiny that came with his family’s presidential history in the region.
“I think it’s been a spectacular trip – and I love Estonia!” he told reporters as he finished up his final event in Tallinn.
The news was less encouraging back home, however, where Bush faced tough stories questioning his relative fundraising strength, his weakening position in polls, and his campaign message following his decision to replace his expected campaign manager David Kochel with Florida strategist Danny Diaz.
Bush has looked to maintain his distance from the trail of criticism following his campaign performance. Asked by Jansing where this week’s frenzy fit on his list of priorities, he replied, “It’s not on it.”
“I’ve learned to prioritize,” he continued. “My job as a candidate is to be the best possible candidate, to persuade people that the ideas I have and the leadership skills I have are the right ones for the future of this country ... All the here and now stuff, thankfully there are smart people focusing on that [so] I don’t have to.”
When it comes to his role as “candidate” – a title he has carefully resisted applying to himself for months – Bush said he planned to keep things upbeat in his opening speech on Monday, which he said he has finished preparing.
“We can fix these things,” he said, when asked about his message on Monday. “We can fix the problems that people think are intractable. With leadership we can move forward again. We can be the greatest country on the face of the Earth again, I truly believe it.”
Bush declined to speculate to msnbc what takeaway American voters might get from his time in Europe, but an aide suggested that the trip’s narrow policy focus on US-Europe relations and addressing Ukraine should stand out against more general “check the box” visits by prospective candidates to countries like Israel and the United Kingdom.
In addition to being measured against other candidates, Bush faced the added advantage and disadvantage of being judged by foreign audiences in the context of his far better known brother and father.
In Germany, America’s image soared under President George H.W. Bush as the Cold War ended and sank under George W. Bush as the Iraq War began, and news reports on Jeb Bush inevitably focused on comparisons with his brother (who Bush never brought up in his visit) and father (who he called “the greatest man alive” at his first event).
To the extent the press criticized his actual appearance in Germany, they noted that he seemed especially careful not to offend his hosts. “Quite shy,” as news network N-TV put it. “Nervous” and “well rehearsed” as German newspaper Die Zeit did. In an opinion piece published ahead of Bush’s visit, Der Spiegel’s Sebastian Fischer concluded that the ex-governor’s more cautious instincts made him “the better Bush” in comparison to his brother, even if his hawkish approach was still out of sync with German opinion.
For the purpose of audiences back in the United States, however, his campaign would surely prefer a boring Bush to a bumbling Bush and there were ample issues in Germany – from the Iraq War to NSA spying to Ukraine – that could have tripped him up abroad. He managed to avoid inflammatory remarks on all three subjects, leaving no wounds to fester as he moved on to friendlier territory in Poland and Estonia, two countries more amenable to the Bush brand and anti-Putin politicking alike.
In Poland, Bush visited memorials and museums dedicated to Polish war dead and privately toured Auschwitz away from the media’s glare. According to Polish political reporter Michal Kalenko, however, his visit was “overshadowed” in the local press by a government crisis in Poland in which several high-ranking officials resigned on Wednesday. Their exits stemmed in part from a leaked tape in 2014 in which several leaders were caught airing grievances about American relations in vulgar terms.
This created a delicate situation for Bush who had planned a Thursday meeting with Radek Sikorski, who was on the tape calling the U.S. alliance “worthless” and resigned as parliamentary speaker this week. Bush kept the meeting and, looking to defuse tensions, graciously praised Sikorski’s commitment to American relations when it came up with reporters.
While press on his appearance may have been light, he earned strong reviews from attendees at closed-door meetings. Marcin Zaborowski, incoming Vice President at the Center for European Policy Analysis, attended a private roundtable with Bush and other non-government organization leaders and told msnbc the governor pressed participants for details on issues like local government reform in Ukraine.
“He had a really amazing attention to detail,” Zaborowski said. “He was completely non-ideological, just looking for pragmatic solutions. It was refreshing.”
Like Poland, Estonia’s fraught history with Russia – it was occupied at separate points by both Czarist and Soviet Russia -- provided a vivid backdrop for his usual criticisms of Putin.
After landing in Tallinn, Bush attended a briefing at the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence, a think tank devoted to holding training exercises, brainstorming legal theories, and drawing up strategies concerning computer warfare. It’s an issue Estonia is intimately familiar with – during a dispute with Russia in 2007 over the removal of a Soviet-era war memorial in Tallinn, hackers launched an unprecedented cyber attack that targeted government websites, businesses, and banks.
The old cliché is that politics stops at the water’s edge, but it’s always been more of a guideline than a hard and fast rule and Bush got in some oblique jabs at the White House over the course of the week. But he generally refrained from anything more indirect shots at either the Obama administration or his 2016 rivals. Asked at the Cyber Defense Center how he would distinguish himself from Clinton on Ukraine, for example, he suggested it would be inappropriate to go into detail while in Europe even as he promised to show “clear differences” once the campaign began. While he repeated at various points he favored a “robust” American and NATO troop presence in Eastern Europe to deter Russia, he added each time that he could not evaluate current levels properly without White House-level briefings and military advisers.
“The particular of troop levels, I think that’s a little premature,” he said on Thursday.
The most direct attack he got in on the current president was on domestic politics and concerned the troubled 2013 health care rollout. After attending an open press briefing on Estonia’s cutting edge government technology services, which includes sites where residents can track their health care, follow their children in school, pay their taxes in minutes, and even vote in parliamentary elections, Bush couldn’t resist drawing a contrast to Obamacare’s early difficulties getting its online exchanges running.
“They’ve embraced using information technology the right way,” he said. “If you compare that to the most dynamic country in the world -- I would say it’s the United States but we have a static government on top of our dynamism that’s choking us off. I mean $800 million to build a website that didn’t work?”
Now comes the hard part. Bush will need an impressive launch Monday afternoon to quiet the concerns surrounding his campaign. The success of fellow Floridian Sen. Marco Rubio’s own Miami rollout, which earned him a strong bump in the polls, raises the pressure further. Democrats, looking to undermine him out the gate, are already piling on daily attacks over passages from a book Bush wrote in 1995 that warned of insufficient shame and public ridicule for out-of-wedlock births. The stakes couldn’t be higher, but if the first rule of international trips is “do no harm” than Bush can leave Europe content that he didn’t make his already formidable challenges even harder.