WASHINGTON -- Like all presidential candidates, Jeb Bush will have to deal with unexpected questions and unforeseen issues along the campaign trail. But he already knows what some of the big challenges will be: his stance on immigration and Common Core standards, and his membership in the Bush family. Speaking on Wednesday in Detroit, he offered a preview of how he might handle those touchy topics by trying to turn potential liabilities into selling points.
With Mitt Romney out, Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are likely to battle it out as the moderates in the GOP field. Some of the early conventional wisdom has said that Christie is the stronger candidate: More charismatic and a better speaker. But addressing the Detroit Economic Club (the prominent business group that has historically attracted White House hopefuls), Bush was both thoughtful and high-energy, rousing the crowd with his shots at President Barack Obama and other liberals, getting laughs, and looking very comfortable in his own skin. From the speech, it's clear that Bush will try political jiu-jitsu -- turning the criticism against him into a selling point.
One of the biggest questions looming is how he'll handle his last name. His father, George H. W. Bush, was the 41st president. His brother, George W. Bush, left the office deeply unpopular (although his approval numbers have rebounded). Democrats continue to blame the 43rd president for the economic crash at the end of his term, and for leaving the U.S. entangled in two wars -- one of them based on discredited intel. "We've had enough Bushes," Jeb's mother Barbara told C-SPAN a year ago. "If we can't find more than two or three families to run for high office, that's silly."
Jeb Bush previewed his defense to questions about dynasty fatigue, handling the issue with both warmth and humor. “I love my dad, in fact my dad is the greatest man alive and if you disagree we’ll go outside,” Jeb Bush said, drawing laughter from the crowd after providing an exception for anyone who might be 6’5” and younger than his 61 years, in which case he said they could instead discuss it.
Bush also praised his eldest brother -- “I love my brother and I think he’s been a great president” -- but he didn't offer a blanket endorsement of that administration's policies. “If I had any degree of self-awareness, this would be the place where I might want to apply it,” he joked before saying that he will “turn this fact into an opportunity to share who I am.” Bush added that, “I’m going to have to do it on my own.”
The former two-term Florida governor touched on another topic that is likely to draw criticism from within his own party: his views on immigration. Bush said that he hopes to cast the immigration debate in economic terms. “We need young dynamic people who are going to make an immediate contribution to our economy,” he said. “Shifting this to an economic driver I think it important.”
Jeb Bush has been much more open to immigration reforms than the more conservative base of his party. His wife came legally to the United States from Mexico. And he has argued that as a nation of immigrants, America must be compassionate. But those views have drawn criticism from the more hardline opponents -- many of whom have advocated for mass deportations of those who are in the country illegally and have fought all attempts at reform that would give legal status to undocumented immigrants.
Bush argued that immigrants who embrace American values should be welcomed. “The American experience works when people embrace a set of shared values, it doesn’t work when we divide ourselves,” he said. “We should love our country, we should embrace our heritage and we should encourage immigrants to do so as well.”
Bush went off script to talk more extensively about his accomplishments in the realm of education. It’s a topic he’s passionate about and since leaving office he has run a non-profit aimed at improving education conditions in struggling communities. He spent a good deal of his Wednesday speech covering his education-related success in Florida. “We raised expectations and standards,” he said. “We made sure that every child counted in the system.”