By Steve Musal
CARROLL, Iowa — Jeb Bush, the son and brother of presidents, did not shy away from his famous family on Friday during a town hall event that drew an audience of about 150 people.
“Frankly, I’m proud that my father was president of the United States and I’m proud that my brother was president of the United States,” Bush, a Republican former Florida governor, said to loud applause.
As Bush tries to climb into the top tier before Monday’s first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, he was also careful to keep a certain distance from the record of his older brother, George W. Bush, the nation’s 43rd president, who was deeply unpopular when he left office.
“I’ve lived a very different life than my brother,” he said. “My life experiences I’m not saying are better or worse, but they’re different and we’re different because of that. He’s probably more disciplined and focused; I’m probably more cerebral.”
And he said this: “I’m much better looking than my brother.”
Bush called his father his hero. But he said he decided early that trying to be George H.W. Bush – fighter pilot, congressman, diplomat, CIA director – would be impossible. Trying to be half of him, Jeb said, allowed him to become his own man.
The crowd was dominated by older Republicans who said they identified with both previous Bushes, as well as Ronald Reagan. They wanted to know how this Bush compared. Younger voters, too, had questions.
“What matters is how they’re going to run our government, what they’re going to do for us on taxes and stuff,” said Blake Horbach, 18, a senior at Kemper Catholic High School in Carroll. “How are they going to spend money? What’s important?”
Horbach and fellow Kemper senior Max Heithoff, 18, said they hadn’t decided which Republican they would caucus for on Monday before the rally. They were looking to be convinced, as Heithoff put it, by “what they’re going to do for our country, for the economy and increased jobs.”
Both young voters also said they wanted any candidate they supported to increase military funding, a subject Bush addressed.
“We can’t restore economic growth unless we’re secure as a nation, and today we see what happens when we fall back,” the former governor said. “The next president has to be serious, has to have a steady hand. (He or she) has to understand that what we need to achieve is peace through strength, not to be a warmongering nation. Not to be the world’s police, but to create security for our own people and therefore get back to the business of creating high, sustained economic growth.”
Bush used the opportunity to take a jab at the 2013 sequester – a series of across the board federal budget cuts. He called it “a so-called victory” that “will not send a signal of seriousness to the world.” Rather than harm President Barack Obama, Bush said, the sequester harmed the military — a kind of short-term planning that he said he heard a lot in his fellow Republican candidates’ military strategy.
“I hope you want a leader who has a steady hand, who knows what he doesn’t know,” Bush said. “In all these debates you hear people talk like it’s a game: ‘We’re going to carpet-bomb,'” he said, referring to Sen. Ted Cruz’s announced strategy against ISIS.
“Really? We’re going to carpet-bomb Mosul, a population of 800,000? You think ISIS is out in the desert somewhere where we can just carpet-bomb people? We need to have a strategy, where we’re engaged.”
While he avoided mentioning his fellow Republican candidates by name, Bush had no problem naming the person he assumes will oppose him in the general election, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Bush painted himself as the person who can take on Clinton because he has been thoroughly vetted and has proven experience as an executive.
“Life doesn’t always turn out as planned, does it?” he said. “Sometimes you have eight hurricanes and four tropical storms in 16 months,” which “taught me you’ve got to be all-in to lead.”
And he’s bringing in some cross-party appeal. Another first-time voter, Carroll High School senior Micaela Bretey, 18, said she was choosing between Bush and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders battling Clinton for the Democratic nomination. She worries most about the rising cost of college tuition. Bush and Sanders, she said, are the candidates she hears addressing that problem.
“That’s what I’m focused on the most, and it has a really big impact on our lives as young people,” Bretey said. “I mean, we are the future.” She said she would vote for Bush over Clinton easily, though she added that Clinton was a possibility if the general election came down to her or Donald Trump.
“Honestly, the whole Donald Trump thing with the immigrants concerns me,” Bretey said. “If we get rid of all of them… I just think that is so rude.”