“We’re America, damn it!”
So proclaimed the famously “low-energy” Jeb Bush at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars hall Friday morning. That rallying cry, Bush said, is how past generations have greeted the challenges America has faced, and it embodies the spirit he says he wants to reignite in the country. “We have to restore America’s greatness by fixing the things that make it hard for people to rise up in this country,” Bush said.
“Restore America’s greatness”? The casually deployed swear word? At one point, Bush even railed against the dangers of “political correctness." The signs all read “Jeb!” but Donald Trump was an undeniable presence at Bush’s town hall in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia.
One questioner obliquely referenced Trump as “the guy in the red hat,” asking how the Republican party can tap into “the silent majority” and “take [on] some of these issues” Trump has raised.
Bush, looking trim in a dark gray suit and plaid shirt, nodded his head deferentially to the Donald before answering.
“Here’s a guy, larger than life, it’s all about him. I wake up thinking, ‘Wow, people are really struggling, suffering,’” Bush said. “That’s what I focus on, that’s what I think about, how do we make sure that people can be lifted up. For him, it’s all about him. But he’s tapped into, because he’s so different than people in public life, he’s tapped into this anger and angst that Washington’s not working. Totally get it, and I respect the fact that, look, this guy’s the frontrunner. He should be treated like a frontrunner, not like some kind of alternative universe to the political system.”
It was a call for the media and voters to take serious Trump’s deviations from the GOP and lack of a conservative record. But even Bush himself is treating the Donald like the frontrunner. The New York Times reported last week the former Florida governor has entered a “new, more combative phase of his campaign” as Trump’s rise in the polls has not abated. “There’s a big difference between Donald Trump and me,” Bush said in New Hampshire last week, according to the Times. “I’m a proven conservative with a record. He isn’t.”
Bush kept the theme going in Virginia, noting Trump’s past support for a single-payer health-care system, a new tax on assets, and even partial-birth abortion. “I’ve never met someone who actually had that view and said it publicly,” Bush said of partial-birth abortion. He was refering to a 1999 appearance by Trump on NBC’s Meet the Press, when the real-estate mogul told host Tim Russert he was “very pro-choice” and said he did not support the partial-birth-abortion ban then being debated in Congress. The ban ultimately passed and was signed into law.
Bush also called Trump’s plan to secure the southern border and deport the several million illegal immigrants currently in the country “not a conservative proposal.”
“It’s going to cost hundreds of billions of dollars, violate civil liberties, challenge our freedom in so many ways,” Bush said.
On hand in Norfolk to assist Bush in criticizing Trump was Eric Cantor, the former majority leader in the U.S. House who lost his Republican primary last year. Cantor, who was just named one of Bush’s Virginia campaign co-chairs, called Bush a “results-oriented leader.”
“He talks about doing, and he does,” Cantor said of Bush. “Mr. Trump is all about talk.”
Both Bush and Cantor noted the positive aspects of Trump’s influence on the race, including the excitement the reality TV star has brought to the process. Another of Bush’s co-chairs present at the event, John H. Hager, said there is a lesson Trump has for Bush and the other GOP candidates. “You have to energize the electorate,” said Hager, who is the former lieutenant governor and also an in-law of the Bush clan; his son, Henry, is married to Jeb Bush’s niece Jenna, daughter of President George W. Bush.
Cantor noted that while there are “serious issues” facing the country, the attention of the media and the voters has been elsewhere. “There’s been so much focus on Donald Trump’s hair or some kind of sidetracked issue,” he said.