Presidential candidates often come out to the Hamptons to private homes this time of year to fundraise. The reason is, to paraphrase bank robber Willie Sutton, it’s because “that’s where the money is.”
Usually you don’t hear about such fundraisers. People are invited by invitation. When I was invited this way to meet Jeb Bush the other day, the first thought I had was whether protesters would mess things up. We have had that happen. Currently there is a lawsuit filed by people who claim their civil rights were violated when they were not permitted to sail out onto Georgica Pond holding signs to protest a visit by Mitt Romney three years ago. Also, they were abused and should be entitled to damages.
For these reasons and others, I will not tell you where it was that I got to hear Jeb Bush speak to a small crowd of “brunchers” who paid thousands of dollars each for that privilege. And I should say I was there not as a supporter, but as a guest of the host, who is a personal friend. He felt meeting Jeb might give me something to think about. I edit a newspaper, after all.
About 50 of us stood behind a house on a beautifully landscaped lawn overlooking a pond. We were eating bacon and eggs, brioche, bagels and coffee when Jeb arrived. Swans were swimming around.
“Now I know what people mean when they say they love the Hamptons,” Jeb said, talking into a PA system. “I worked in New York once. On a Friday, people were always in a hurry to leave early to get out of the city. This is why.”
Jeb Bush would be one of the tallest presidents ever if he were elected. I’m 5’8”. Standing next to him, talking to him, he was more than a head taller. But he leans down. He’s also gentle, amiable and very pleasant and easygoing. And though he is not inspirational, he is genuine.
“I’ll tell you something. We came into town about 5 a.m. Downtown, there were about 50 people doing landscaping, making things nice. All of them were illegal.”
There was no malice in this. Just the fact. Bush described what he would do about immigration. He would keep new illegals from coming across the border, in some cases, by building a wall. He’d deport undesirables. Others though, he would want to “come out of the shadows.” He would give them residency cards, work permits, have them pay taxes and be allowed to stay, though not to receive government services. To become citizens, they’d have to get to the back of the line.
“It’s not all about citizenship,” he said. “People are here for many reasons. During the Reagan Administration, the President offered a two-year amnesty. Everyone illegal was welcome to step forward and become a citizen. But only 40% did. Surprising, isn’t it?”
People say Jeb Bush is very conservative. He is, but he also listens and seems open to compromise. He is not a favorite of the Tea Party.
I asked Jeb what he was proudest about during his eight years as Governor of Florida.
“I’m best known for what I did in improving education,” he said. “You could read about it.”
I did. He favors Common Core, testing, teachers and administrators taking responsibility, but he fought to prevent certain students getting scholarships for any reason other than good grades, and succeeded in that in Florida. There are fewer African-Americans in colleges by percentage than when he came. He fought a ballot initiative that would limit classroom size to 25 pupils. He tried to close a library at Florida State and transfer the books to a private college. He lost both those fights.
He talked about finances. When he became governor, he said, he faced a deficit in the budget left to him by his predecessor. There was only a billion dollars in reserves. When he left after eight years, he had eight balanced budgets, he had reduced taxes and he had $10 billion in reserve. He’d also grown the economy by a greater percentage than any other state except California.
Prosperity is very important to him. His goal, he said, is to increase America’s annual growth rate from its current 2% to 4%. He would reduce government regulation. He would unleash American business. And that would cause increased prosperity for all. Greatness lies ahead.
“The rich today are out of the recession,” he said. “But for everybody else it isn’t. And it’s hard to start a business. To start a business in California, you have to buy two different $800 business permits. Most people starting a small business do so with about $10,000. For $1,600, you get nothing. Why do that?”
Jeb said he would repeal Obamacare, if he could, but he doesn’t think that will happen. If it were repealed, though, he would replace it with “disaster” coverage. He said that when a sickness could destroy a person or his family financially, the government should step in. It wasn’t clear to me if he meant just certain people would get this coverage or if everybody would. When I had a chance, I asked him.
“I meant everybody,” he said.
He talked about America’s place in the world. He said we are pulling back and so others are stepping forward to fill the void. He said we should lead. Leading from behind is not leadership. He would, he said, spend lots of money to rebuild the military.
“What countries do we have better relationships with since Obama became President?” he asked. “I think three. Iran, Myanmar, maybe half for India. That’s it. We should be strengthening relationships with our friends, not our enemies.”
He said he would create as much communication as he could with China, but it would be at arms length. He would make it very clear we had Japan’s back, and we had South Korea’s back. It was a belligerent stance. And personally I found myself at odds with him about this. President Obama in my view has done a remarkable job with foreign policy, using sanctions and persuasion rather than invasion and war. There have been no large American military casualties on Obama’s watch. America doesn’t have to run everything, or else.
Bush didn’t talk at all about “pro-life” or women’s rights, but when I read about it later I learned he was very pro-life. On the other hand, in Florida, abortion is only prohibited after 24 weeks of pregnancy when doctors say a fetus passes a “pain threshold.” This is not protecting an unborn from the beginning.
I also learned in reading up on him that Jeb is opposed to gay marriage. He has said you have to balance the views of those who believe in the sanctity of a traditional marriage—it’s in the Bible—with those who support gay marriage. But because there is separation of church and state, I think this thinking is flawed.
When I’ve met presidential candidates before, I have always come away star-struck for a week. They had these stump speeches. I did not come away from meeting Jeb Bush feeling that way. What I did think is that if he were President, he wouldn’t screw it up any. He might turn the country to the right for sure. But he wasn’t a nut case.
“I’m not going to say one thing before a liberal group and another before a conservative group,” he said. “I have a record and experience. Others do not. I want to win, but I want it to be because others want it.”