CONCORD, N.H. – Only a few days after saying he wouldn’t “go out of my way” to point out what he saw as mistakes made by his brother, Jeb Bush did just that Thursday, criticizing former President George W. Bush’s record on the federal budget.
“I think in Washington during my brother’s time, Republicans spent too much money. I think he could have used the veto power,” Bush said toward the end of a two-day campaign swing through New Hampshire. “He could have brought budget discipline to Washington, D.C.”
The remark, made when Bush was asked to distinguish himself from his brother, came during a shift in campaign style for the former Florida governor, who – after months of relentlessly raising money to support his likely run for president in 2016, and unquestionably his roughest week in politics this year – is spending more time talking about himself.
While that includes telling stories about meeting his wife as a foreign exchange student in Mexico, and his record while serving two terms as Florida governor, they are stories that aren’t all that new. The criticism of his brother’s time as president is.
“I’m blessed to be a member of the Bush family, but I also have lived my own life,” Bush said Thursday.
Although Bush said earlier in the week that “the ship is stable,” the shift in approach is an acknowledgement of what may be his biggest challenge in the 2016 presidential primaries. While most voters can’t help but know Bush’s name, thanks to his father’s and brother’s presidencies, they don’t yet know much about him.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Peter Rice, a retired Marine from Portsmouth, who attended a business round table with Bush on Wednesday. “I think he has more to offer the Oval Office than his brother did. And he does not come off as elitist, as his father sometimes did.”
How Bush believes he differs from his father and brother led off his appearance before roughly 50 small business owners in Concord the next day.
“Apparently there’s a little confusion that all family members are supposed to be clones of one another,” Bush said.
That discussion point has become all the more important for the younger brother of former President George W. Bush and son of former President George Bush, more so since he struggled last week to answer questions about the 2003 war in Iraq – a nation both his father and brother invaded while commander in chief.
It was a week he ended by telling reporters he wouldn’t “go out of my way” to point out what he saw as mistakes by either former Bush president. “It’s just not going to happen,” he said. Yet when asked to distinguish himself from his brother on Thursday, Bush did so with the critique of his older brother’s fiscal record.
Since expressing interest in running for president in 2016 four months ago, Bush has spent much of his time speaking to private fundraisers aimed at fueling the super PAC that’s expected to advocate for his candidacy once he enters the race later this summer.
The mission now is to combat the appearance of Bush’s imminent campaign as a foregone conclusion, aides said. That’s a real concern for Bush, said Tom Rath, a New Hampshire Republican who supported George W. Bush in 2000 and advised 2012 nominee Mitt Romney.
“The name is known so well-known and comes with the perception of a front-runner,” Rath said. “That can be off-putting in New Hampshire. It’s a problem they are going to continue to have.”
And so in the past week, Bush has moved to spending more time at events with politically influential audiences, such as small groups of Republican National Committee members at a party meeting in Arizona, and GOP officials and groups in Iowa, home of the leadoff caucuses.
“Few Iowans have really been exposed to his record as governor of Florida, which includes a number of things conservative voters would appreciate,” said Craig Robinson, an Iowa Republican who called Bush’s description of reducing the size of the state’s payroll and launching a comprehensive school-choice program eye-opening.
“There is a misperception that Governor Bush is a national figure who has spent lots of time with the political class in Washington,” said Bush spokesman Tim Miller. “He’s been focused on Florida or the private sector his whole career.”
Beyond the biography and the effort to set himself apart from family members who have already lived in the White House, Bush said the talk of his wife and grandchildren – what Bush described as showing his “heart” – has a tactical payoff.
“The simple fact is you’re going to get attacked. You have to show who you are first,” Bush told 50 people at a restaurant in Salem. “People have to shrug their shoulders.”