Protesters and tough questions confront Jeb Bush on day 2 of his campaign
DERRY, N.H. — The protesters were outside Jeb Bush’s political event here on Tuesday, rather than on the inside, as they were during his presidential announcement speech Monday in Miami.
And the issues were different. In Miami, two dozen people confronted Bush about his position on immigration reform, pushing him to support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants rather than simply a path to “legal status.”
Here, before Bush began a town hall meeting with a few hundred Granite Staters, about two dozen protesters of a different stripe stood in front of the Derry Opera House, holding signs that slammed Bush for a different reason, reflecting the unique political personality of this state, which votes second in the primary process.
“Read my lips,” said one handwritten sign, in a reference to the famous statement by Bush’s father, former president George H.W. Bush, that he would not raise taxes — a promise undone when he went on to raise taxes. “No new Bushes,” the sign said.
“No banker left behind,” said another sign, above a photo of Jeb Bush, his brother and former president George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush.
It was a firmly anti-dynastic crowd, many of them fans of former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, a libertarian-minded Republican who ran for president in 2008 and 2012, and whose son, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is running for president in 2016. Their libertarian leanings reflect the independent streak that runs through many residents in New Hampshire, the state motto of which famously proclaims “Live Free or Die.” They did not like that Bush is seeking to become the third member of his family to be elected president, which would be a first in American history.
On his second day as an officially declared candidate for president, it was a reminder that outside the friendly confines of Miami and the state of Florida, where Bush is better known by those who remember his eight-year governorship, he faces major challenges in the early primary states. Here, Bush’s last name sticks in the craw of many who do not like the idea of a ruling class. In Iowa and South Carolina, which go first and third, respectively, Bush is viewed as insufficiently conservative by many grassroots activists.
New Hampshire is probably more fertile ground for Bush than either Iowa or South Carolina. The pressure will be on him to do well in, if not win, the state, setting up a likely showdown between him and Sen. Marco Rubio, his fellow Floridian, in the Sunshine State in March.
A common gripe many of the protesters here had, in addition to the Bush name and bank bailouts, was Bush’s support for the Common Core educational standards, which have drawn opposition because they are perceived to be another way the central government is seeking to control citizens.
“The federal government should not dictate what every child across the country learns,” said Leah Wolczko, a 48-year-old state employee from Manchester who held the “Read my lips” sign. “We’re conservatives. He isn’t. He believes the federal government has powers it does not.”
“It should be local control,” said Wolczko, who said she liked Rand Paul the best of all the Republican presidential candidates.
James Adams, a member of the New Hampshire Veterans Council, said that “a lot of New Hampshire folks are very upset about Common Core.”
“They don’t want the federal government pushing that down their throat,” said Adams.
Somewhat surprisingly, during a 70-minute question-and-answer town hall, Bush did not get a single question about his position on Common Core. But in a taped interview with Sean Hannity filmed in the Opera House in front of the crowd before the event began, the Fox News host pressed Bush on his positions on the issue, which represent one of Bush’s big challenges here.
Bush told Hannity that Common Core standards “ought to be state-driven.”
“If I was elected president I would work with Congress … [to] prohibit direct or indirect involvement by the federal government in the creation of content and curriculum standards. This should remain a local and state issue, not a federal issue,” Bush said.
“What I want is higher standards, and frankly standards by themselves are meaningless unless you have school choice, more accountability, different consequences for failure,” he said. “Parents whose kids are trapped in failing schools ought to be given other options, public and private.”
It was as if Bush had been listening to Wolczko voice her concerns before his event. She said that despite Bush’s assurances in the past along the lines of what he said Tuesday — in his second public event as a declared presidential candidate and his first in New Hampshire — she does not trust national leaders or the federal government.
“I know what a slippery slope looks like. And when the federal government writes guidelines, there are things attached: money and positions of power. And guidelines can easily be changed to become rules,” she said. “Government is like fire. We need it to survive, but it can quickly overrun its boundaries and burn the house down.”
After Wolczko and the group of anti-Bush, anti-Common Core protesters had been out front of the opera house for a while, a smaller group of protesters joined them on the sidewalk to highlight a different issue: climate change. They were organized by NextGen Climate, a group funded by billionaire Tom Steyer. An organizer for the group said that while Bush has said “good things” about the need for countries to work together to reduce emissions, those who think climate change is a serious problem have been troubled by his assertion that the scientific consensus on the issue is not “decided.”
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic candidate for president, hit Bush on this issue during her announcement speech last weekend. And Bush was asked by a New Hampshire resident about this issue during the town hall meeting. Mike Speltz, a 68-year-old retiree from Londonderry — who later told Yahoo News he voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 but believes climate change is an “existential” threat — asked Bush what he thought about Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change, which was leaking to the press as Bush spoke.
Bush was mildly critical of the pope’s decision to address the issue, though he sought to blunt the criticism with personal praise of the pontiff.
“I want to read it. But first of all Pope Francis is an extraordinary leader. He speaks with such clarity. He speaks so differently and he is drawing people back into the faith, all of which as a converted Catholic of 25 years I think is really cool,” Bush said.
“I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home. But I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or from my pope,” Bush added. “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.”
Bush did go on to say that as it concerns climate change, he believes that “we do have a changing climate and we do need to adapt,” but that the science is not clear as to how much climate is changing because of humans versus natural phenomena.
But he said that this question is “kind of irrelevant” to people in Florida who are living close to sea level, for whom “three or four or five inches of rising sea levels could create huge problems.” Some possible solutions to this challenge, he said, could include “building water systems that are more durable to eliminate saltwater intrusion” and “not allowing for people to continue to develop in areas that are going to be below the floodplain.”
Bush was also asked about another hot-button political issue that is driving conversation here in the Granite State: campaign finance and the growing influence of wealthy individuals on politics. Bush’s campaign waited six months between his first announcement that he was exploring a run and his actual announcement so that he could personally raise as much money as possible for a super PAC that will now work on his behalf without coordinating with his campaign.
But Bush admitted that the current system “doesn’t make sense to me.” He said that “in a perfect world,” candidates could receive unlimited donations as long as giving was disclosed within a 48-hour window, as opposed to now, where outside groups can often receive unlimited contributions without disclosing donors.
Bush, who often talks about reforming government in an idealistic and aspirational tone, did not offer much hope for the woman who asked him about changing the current system.
“I’ve been told this requires some kind of constitutional amendment and the chance of any kind of constitutional amendment happening anytime soon is remote,” he said.
As he did in Miami on Monday, Bush emphasized over and over that he found a way as governor of Florida to “show how to take care of people who truly need the help of government … and cut taxes and reduce the size of government.”
“You can do both,” he said. “It happened in Florida.”
Bush was well-received by the audience inside the opera house.
“I don’t see anybody that’s worth a second look besides Jeb,” Speltz, who asked the question about climate change, said.
State Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, a Republican, said he is “leaning toward” endorsing Bush in the coming days.
“He’s proven, he’s inclusive and he’s realistic,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez, an immigration reform advocate, said he is not worried about Bush’s position in favor of a path toward legal status rather than citizenship.
“From there, many people will go to citizenship,” Gonzalez said.
But as the protesters outside demonstrated, there will be plenty of opposition to Bush that can be overcome only by many more events like the one he held Tuesday, winning over voters face-to-face.