Milford, New Hampshire — These days, the signature exclamation mark next to Jeb Bush’s name could be more like a hazard symbol.
In front of a standing-room-only crowd here for a town-hall event on Thursday, the former Florida governor’s opening pitch was simple: Who’s going to keep you safe?
“The world has been turned upside down,” Bush told the attendees. “We have this existential threat now that people sense. And because of that, we’re getting more serious about who we’re going to pick.”
Amid a lag in the polls for months upon months, this is the crux of Bush’s bet: As the presidential campaign becomes more dictated by foreign-policy and national-security events, the “serious” candidate with a history of executive-leadership experience stands to benefit.
Not real-estate mogul Donald Trump, whose divisive political campaign led him to scrap a plan to visit Israel, America’s closest Middle East ally later this month.
Not Ted Cruz, a first-term senator. (Bush criticised Cruz by name on Thursday for voting to curb the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs. “I hope he has a change of heart,” Bush said.)
Not Hillary Clinton, who he argues had her chance to shape the world as US secretary of state and didn’t live up to the task.
“I think now is the time, more recently than maybe in 20 or 30 years, because of the failure of this White House — foreign policy and national security was way down on the list of concerns and priorities,” said Tom Ridge, the former secretary of homeland security who has endorsed Bush.
“It’s been elevated,” Ridge added. “They have seen this erosion of America’s place and prominence in the world.”
Bush, campaigning Thursday with Ridge and Medal of Honour recipient Col. Leo Thorsness, argued that he’s uniquely capable of tackling the challenges facing the US on a global scale.
He wants to bolster the US’ relationship with Israel, which he says has suffered under President Barack Obama. He wants to recalibrate the rising regional influence of Iran and global influence of China. He wants to be the president that “destroys” the terror group ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, which has now been linked to an act of terror in the US.
“The election may revolve more around these national-security issues more now than I anticipated,” Bush said in an interview here with Business Insider on Thursday.
It’s a potentially awkward argument for Bush, who, by his last name alone, has faced more scrutiny because of his brother, former President George W. Bush. Even many Republicans now think George W. Bush had made a mistake by invading Iraq in 2003.
Jeb Bush faces competition not only from Trump, who has surged to the top of virtually every Republican primary poll, but also from fellow establishment-oriented candidates like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who have made foreign policy and national security a key component of their platforms.
But Bush says choosing a commander in chief is two parts — the first of which is “personal.”
Bush is the second-most “trusted” Republican candidate in New Hampshire on national security, according to a survey conducted by the firm Harper Polling earlier this month. His campaign is in the midst of a $600,000-plus, three-week ad buy in New Hampshire, in which three Medal of Honour recipients explain why Bush should be voters’ choice.
“It is personal who is going to be — who can be the president. Who can be commander in chief. Who has a steady hand. Who doesn’t talk trash but has plans and respects the military, and has a commitment to rebuilding it. Who can build a strategy in a serious way to keep us safe,” Bush said.
“That’s one part of this,” he added. “The personal side.”
Bush continued, “The second part is: Who can articulate a vision for the proper foreign policy for the country?”
On the personal side, it’s become extremely clear that Bush does not believe a real-estate mogul and reality-television star should be given the keys to America’s foreign policy. He laughed as one town-hall attendee Thursday night said Trump “is not a statesman, and he scares the bejesus out of me.”
Bush himself took particular aim at Trump on Thursday for postponed a planned trip to Israel, which had been scheduled to include a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The cancellation came just a day after Trump originally said he had planned to visit the nation.
“Of course it was canceled,” Bush said. “Who would want to see him after he created a real problem by a blanket statement that wasn’t serious?”
Bush was referring to Trump’s call to temporarily bar Muslims from entering the US in the aftermath of the recent mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, in which both shooters were thought to be inspired by the Islamic State terrorist group, also known as ISIS.
Netanyahu had said he planned to speak with any US presidential candidate who requested a meeting so as not to appear favourable toward any particular candidate. But news of Trump’s potential visit caused an uproar and prompted calls from within Israel’s Parliament for Netanyahu to cancel the meeting.
“Look, the guy’s not serious. He’s not a serious person,” Bush said. “He can’t be commander in chief. He doesn’t have plans. This is all dog-whistle talk. This is to provoke anger. This is to — with all due respect to the media — this is to generate massive attention to him. It’s not about a serious plan. Is that a serious plan in all reality? Of course not.”
Though Trump publicly canceled his meeting with Netanyahu, Bush said it was clear why Netanyahu wouldn’t want to meet with a US presidential candidate who was “endorsing a view that would be against his national-security interests.”
“If you view it as a serious proposal, which it isn’t, what he’s proposing is weakening our position in the world,” Bush said, “making it harder for us to be protected. Not stronger. He’s weakening the United States’ posture in the world, and he’s keeping our country less safe.”
Business Insider asked if that was the case already. Bush said Trump’s statement alone was detrimental to the US’s foreign-policy interests.
“By his statement!” Bush said. “If that statement was to be a policy and was implemented, it would make it harder for us to take out ISIS. Near impossible. It would make it harder for us to engage in the world. No one would take us seriously. This is ludicrous. This is not even worth talking about.”
But American voters, at least, think it might be worth talking about. Some surveys have nevertheless shown a surge in support for the front-running Trump after his inflammatory comments.
Bush’s own town-hall event was full of voters sympathetic to Trump’s point of view. One voter — who wouldn’t give his name for a lack of trust in the media — said he wished to see Bush discuss what he perceived as problems of violence within Islam.
Which brings up the question: How do you swing voters taking a serious look at an “unserious” candidate?
“The reason I think he’s gaining momentum is people are starting to pay a lot more attention not to the personalities who are ‘the race,'” Ridge said. “The race is material. They’re starting to figure out, who do I want to be president? Who do I want to be commander in chief? Who do I want to sit in the Oval Office?”
Bush is betting on voters having that image in their heads when they go into the voting booth. Like one voter, in a New Hampshire diner on Friday, who said she could see herself supporting Trump for a while but wondered if all the criticism piling up made Trump more trouble than he’s worth.
That goes with the “second part” of Bush’s plan: articulating a foreign-policy vision for the US.
“In that realm,” Bush said, “I think I do pretty good.”
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