Jeb Bush may be the front-runner in the GOP 2016 primary. He is the son and brother of former presidents and can tap into their vaunted fundraising machines. In some eyes, the former Florida governor always was the more disciplined, thoughtful and worthy son. Maybe. But Jeb Bush also has a problem: He is a boring speaker.
Now that he's apparently running for president, has Bush stepped up his game? I walked two blocks from where I work, at the San Francisco Chronicle, to the National Automobile Dealers Association convention Friday to watch him address the crowd. Did he hit rhetorical heights? No, he did not.
Addressing a mostly friendly room, Bush started off well enough. He saluted his parents and the best father a son could have. He injected a little humor. People kept asking him how his brother is doing, so Bush told the crowd: "Since you asked, Marvin is doing spectacularly well."
He had some good lines. "Sixty percent of Americans believe that we're still in a recession. They're not dumb. It's because they are in a recession." And: "Portfolios are strong, but paychecks are weak."
But there also was candidate-speak — the kind of stock-phrase babble that says nothing. In Bush's world, there are "ceilings above people's aspirations." "To achieve earned success, Americans also have to have the skills to do so." Oh, yes, and it's time to fix America's "broken immigration system."
"For some odd reason, there's a dearth of leadership in the public square today. It's important to have leaders because now people believe that dysfunction is permanent in Washington, D.C." Stump speech or school book report?
Bush acknowledged that it's not "cool" to talk about cheap oil in San Francisco, but not being cool did not chill his ardor. "The first thing we should do is approve the Keystone pipeline, for crying out loud," the Floridian told the car dealers. "Washington shouldn't try to regulate hydraulic fracking out of business. It should be done reasonably and thoughtfully to protect the natural environment, but it shouldn't be done with the intent of paralyzing it." He sang praises for a "veritable revolution" brought about by "horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracking."
Could Bush's liberal use of syllables be a case of overcompensation? He is, after all, the brother of the "misunderestimated" Dubya and the son of the president who regretted boasting that he had kicked "a little ass" after debating Geraldine Ferraro in 1984.
On immigration, Bush is working to offer a friendlier face to Latino voters. Mitt Romney suggested "self-deportation" in 2012. Bush told the car dealers that the government should find immigrants who have overstayed their visas and "politely ask them to leave." That would take Washington from nanny state to maitre d'D.C.
During an after-speech question-and-answer session with association Chairman Forrest McConnell III, Bush showed his self-effacing side. "Sunday is my fun day," Bush said succinctly. He called himself an introvert who would rather read a book than get in a conga line.
Anything he'd do over? McConnell asked. In 1994, when he first ran for Florida governor, Bush went to a candidates debate where an African-American woman asked what he would do for black voters. "Probably nothing," Bush answered. When he repeated that line Friday, the crowd roared.
Bush explained that he meant to say he believes in "equality of opportunity, not equality of results." He regretted using language that opened up wounds. Bush lost in 1994 but won the gubernatorial contest in 1998, when he ran a more inclusive campaign. In 1994, Bush said, he should have been "smart enough to have said it differently."
And: "Frankly, the bigger the idea, the more provocative the idea, the more you have to use language, I think, that doesn't scare people or insult them. I've gotten better at that." True. Bush has blunted his sharp edges. Now he's a butter knife.