Immediately after his speech at the Red State Gathering on Saturday, one of four Republican presidential candidates to address the activists in Atlanta, former Governor Jeb Bush met with me for an exclusive one-on-one interview. Bush had been given a warm reception by the conservative crowd, not as wildly enthusiastic as some — Ted Cruz, who preceded Bush, for instance — but the audience reaction went well beyond mere polite applause. After some initial chat in which Bush asked me to explain the allure of ice fishing (about which, as you’ll hear, I’m at a loss), Bush said he was quite pleased with the response.
“I got a great reception,” Bush tells me. “There’s this narrative built up that somehow I’m out of step with the Republican Party, conservative caucus,” he replied. “That’s just ludicrous. I’ve got a record of cutting taxes, not raising them, reducing the size of government.” Bush talked about his record of reforming and shrinking government, and also reminded the audience that he had been called “Veto Corleone” during his first term as Florida’s governor, and explained the reference later in the interview:
“People legitimately don’t know” about his record, but when they hear it, “they come away impressed.” That’s the advantage that governors have, Bush notes. Legislators can claim to have proposed bills, but “governors get to do things.” The track record of Barack Obama shows the dangers of electing legislators with no governing experience, and while Bush gives Republican legislators credit for slowing down Obama’s agenda, they aren’t in a position to have governed and succeeded in passing their own agenda.
I presented Ted Cruz’ argument at RSG15 and consistently elsewhere, which is that Republicans and Democrats have formed an Establishment Party in Washington, and the solution is to elect outsiders that can force Republicans toward a conservative agenda. Bush says there is commonality between Cruz and himself on that point. “There has to be common ground,” he replies. “If we break up into our disparate parts, we’re not going to win.” Bush says that he’s not running to make a point, but running in a way that gets a majority. Without a Republican in the White House, Bush argues, nothing can advance from the conservative agenda.
Bush is at odds with conservatives on some issues, though, especially education and immigration. Bush stopped me when I asked about his support for a national Common Core policy. “I’m for states that want to take up Common Core standards to voluntarily do it,” Bush says. When asked if he supports a federal mandate for Common Core, Bush replies, “Of course not … this should be state driven.” Bush said he would issue an executive order barring the federal government from imposing federal standards, if the current K-12 reauthorization (which includes such a prohibition) has not yet passed into law. “I am Mr. School Choice,” Bush says when asked.
Bush was the only presidential candidate to address Donald Trump’s remarks from the RSG15 stage. “Women make up 53% [of the electorate],” Bush says, and “Hillary Clinton is just giddy with excitement when he says these things.” Megyn Kelly, Bush notes, “is probably the most professional, talented journalist on cable television — on television, in America today.” Denigrating her “doesn’t do Mr. Trump much good,” Bush continues, “but frankly, it damages the conservative brand.” Bush says it’s time to tell Trump “enough already.” He wants to campaign joyfully too, but Bush reminds us that this is serious business. “We’re electing a President of the United States … who will make important decisions for the future of 300 million people.”
Instead of dealing with the “big personalities” in the Republican race, the presidential contenders should aim their rhetorical fire at Hillary Clinton, Bush says. His criticism, by name anyway, has been aimed exclusively at Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. “This is a contact sport,” Bush says, “but we have to be unified at the end. I respect everybody.” Differences of opinion are “fair game,” but it shouldn’t be personal within the GOP. That’s the game Hillary and Obama play, “demonizing” anyone who disagrees with them, and the Iran deal is a great example of how that game gets played by Democrats. That “creates these divides that make it harder to get things done,” Bush says. “We don’t need that on our side. We need to have a healthy debate.”
* – “Exclusive” in the media-standard sense, which means no other journalist was in the room with us at the same time. However, only one other outlet (National Journal) got a one-on-one with Bush, so I’d call that closer than usual. Also, thanks to Amanda Muñoz for taking the pictures.