DES MOINES — Jeb Bush has a pre-debate cold. “I’m losing my voice, which is not a great sign, but we’ll get through this,” he tells the employees gathered in the cafeteria of Nationwide Insurance here.
We’ll get through this — kind of a melancholy epigraph for the Bush 2016 campaign, don’t you think? Bush on the campaign trail exudes a kind of nerdy decency, or maybe decent nerdiness — whatever. It’s appealing, but jarringly out of step with the angry, high-decibel atmosphere of this campaign season.
Bush launches into his remarks, complimenting Iowans on having the least credit card debt per individual of any state, and then he really gets going.
“All other issues pale in comparison if we don’t deal with the structural deficits that we face,” he says. Between coughs and sips from a water bottle, he touches on “historical run rates” and the prospect of debt service under rising interest rates. “Imagine if we got to 300 basis points more,” he observes.
I don’t mean to make fun here, because Bush is correct — he is doing the responsible thing — to point out the danger posed by a high debt load at a combined with an aging population creating rising entitlement costs.
There is an infuriating disconnect between Bush’s earnestness on fiscal responsibility and his stick-shock tax plan, which would reduce revenue by close to $7 trillion in the first decade, according to the Tax Policy Center.
And there is a pie-in-the-sky aspect to his goal of 4 percent economic growth, which, he says, “is the first step to getting our budget back in balance.” Growing four more inches is my first step to being taller, but that’s not going to happen either.
Nonetheless, at least Bush is endeavoring to have a serious discussion, in a reasonable tone, with rational argument. This is a candidate who gets a question about securing the electrical grid and water supply and responds, “Great question.” With apparent sincerity, before launching into an answer that touches on “liability protections for private businesses” and over broad Obama administration definitions of “waters of the United States.”
“This campaign season hasn’t been one that is policy laden,” he observes, in what may be the understatement of Campaign 2016.
Indeed, “I’m not an agitator-in-chief,” he says, referring to “politicians that push people down to make themselves look like the end-all and be-all,” and, then, in case you had somehow missed the point, “I won’t spend time bragging about how great I am.”
Bush doesn’t utter Donald Trump’s name until a questioner lobs, “Why is Trump not right for America,” at which point he can hold back no longer. “How much time do we have,” Bush asks, noting that he had a $20 bet that Trump would actually show up for Thursday’s debate.
“He thinks he’s not being treated fairly — really?” Bush says of Trump. “Poor little Donald being mistreated.” He takes on Trump’s approach (“You don’t win by insulting your way to the presidency. A conservative, particularly, has to campaign with their arms wide open.”) and questions his conservative bona fides.
Trump’s nomination, he says, “will lead to electoral disaster for the Republican cause.” And, finally, “you’ve given me therapy to let me answer that question.”
Which seems, undeniably, true. That, and some Sudafed, may be what Bush needs right now.