Presidential hopeful Jeb Bush began to explain his “right to rise” message in a speech at the Detroit Economic Club. Starting with a jab at the media — which, he says, find it hard to accept his unconditional love for Bush 41 and 43 — he showed a little leg, a view of his campaign theme.
Looking svelte in a dark suit, he used a teleprompter, a vast improvement over recent speeches in which he used a script at the podium (necessitating he look down and lose eye contact). It was in a sense vintage Jeb Bush, not the Bush the media critics on the far right have caricatured.
He began describing the problem: “Far too many Americans live on the edge of economic ruin. And many more feel like they’re stuck in place, working longer and harder, even as they’re losing ground. Tens of millions of Americans no longer see a clear path to rise above their challenges. Something is holding them back. Not a lack of ambition. Not a lack of hope. Not because they are lazy or see themselves as victims. Something else. Something is an artificial weight on their shoulders. Today and in the coming weeks, I will address this critical issue.” It was a deliberate distancing from the 47 percent dependency slam that doomed Mitt Romney in 2012. He later reiterated, “Today, Americans across the country are frustrated. They see only a small portion of the population riding the economy’s ‘up’ escalator.” In place of the “hammock” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker uses to describe government dependency, Bush called it a “spider web” — an interesting distinction that reaffirms his argument that limits on upward mobility are imposed on the poor, not the result of sloth.
He signaled he would present a conservative and hopeful message in the weeks to follow. (“And I will offer a new vision. A plan of action that is different than what we have been hearing in Washington D.C. It is a vision rooted in conservative principles and tethered to our shared belief in opportunity and the unknown possibilities of a nation given the freedom to act, to create, to dream and to rise. We see that belief every day in action.”) Using Detroit and other failed government enterprises as examples, he doubted government’s ability to manage competently, let alone encourage upward mobility:
For example: Detroit under the previous administration was so proud of shutting down businesses that hadn’t paid their licenses and fees, they bragged about it in press releases. The city threatened nearly 900 businesses with closure and followed through on nearly 400 businesses, shutting them down. Many of these were small businesses run out of homes and alley-facing garages, run by people who just wanted to take that first step up the economic ladder. One of those business owners, Derek Little, had a simple way to describe his frustration: ’I’m running a legit business… They could be doing something better.’ And while the city was shutting down people who were trying to build a business …it couldn’t even do its job correctly: The city was losing money writing parking tickets. Of course, on Amtrak they lose money on the snack car. They literally have a captive audience. But government inefficiency isn’t just irritating. It’s instructive. If the government can’t collect parking fines, or sell snacks on a train, why would government know how to enable every citizen to move up in life?
He plainly sees the benefits of a dynamic marketplace. (“Competition is messy. But it’s essential. We’ve all seen the battles: The taxicab companies fight against web-enabled car services. The restaurants fight against the food trucks. The brick-and-mortar retailers fight against the Internet companies.”)
In general terms, he sketched out his general principles: Support for intact families topped the list. (“The evidence is overwhelming. Every child has a greater chance at opportunity when they are raised by loving, caring and supportive parents and a committed family. That isn’t the work of government. But it’s critical that governmental leaders recognize that and support it.”) Then came: “Growth above all,” namely the commitment to test each new policy by whether it increases or decreases growth. He laid out a goal of 4 percent growth. Third, he said,”The right to rise depends on a government that makes it easier to work than not work. That means fewer laws restricting the labor market and reducing the penalties that come with moving up from the lowest rungs of the ladder.” And lastly, he argued that to address income inequality one has to “address the income gap, let’s close the opportunity gap, and that starts with doing everything we can to give every child, from every neighborhood, a great education.” He then went off script extolling the reforms and success of Florida’s education reforms, stressing charter schools. He was most animated during this part of the speech.
What then did we learn? First, he can throw a punch. (“For President Obama, one of the rules is this: He reserves the right to change the rules.”) Second, he did not directly talk about immigration during the speech aside from telling about two immigrants who founded their own start-up in inner-city Detroit. (He thereby made the case that these sorts of entrepreneurs are the people we want in the United States.) However, in the question and answer section he reiterated that fixing the border is his top priority and explained both our demographic trends and economic innovation weigh in favor of immigration. He also slammed the president for his executive order. Third, his delivery is a bit wooden when reading from the teleprompter, and plainly going off script gets him more engaged with the subject matter. He’ll need to work on a smoother delivery. He was better when ad-libbing and best of all in the question-and-answer period, where his familiarity with the issues came through. Fourth, he does have a different message than other candidates — more technologically sophisticated than the average pol, more focused on what people do outside of government (federal or state), more focused on growth (including economically desirable immigration) and more convinced that if we just get government right, the underlying strengths of the United States (an energy revolution, medical advances) will create unprecedented wealth and well-being. Fifth, he did not raise foreign policy in the speech, perhaps because of the domestic-oriented audience. In the question-and-answer period, however, he spoke about the dangers of asymmetrical threats that are “not going away” and the president’s penchant for seeming but not actually being involved in international challenges. He made the pitch for more engagement in the world, with the caveat that this does not necessarily mean “boots on the ground.” And he pointed out that Israel does not feel we have the Jewish state’s “back.” And yes, he is in favor of vaccination.
The speech did not have specific policy prescriptions, but it was an introduction to Bush and his campaign. It left me wanting to know more, which might have been the purpose. In short, the message from Jeb Bush is: Game on.