WASHINGTON – What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.
Jeb Bush has been stumping his way across the country, explaining what he would do as president. But nobody seems to understand what the heck he’s talking about.
In July, he said that “people need to work longer hours” as part of an economic recovery. Then he said his remarks had been misinterpreted.
A couple of weeks later he said “we need to figure out a way to phase out” Medicare. Then he complained that critics were taking his remarks out of context.
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A week or so after that, he proclaimed that “I’m not sure we need half a billion dollars for women’s health issues.” Then he said he misspoke.
That controversy hadn’t died down when he started another by using the term “anchor babies” to describe the children of immigrants – and before long he was complaining that people were misconstruing these remarks, too.
Add to this the four different answers he struggled to give during a single week this spring about whether he would have invaded Iraq, and it’s quite possible that no other person who aspires to occupy the bully pulpit has himself been bullied quite so much by the English language.
Bush comes by this naturally – congenitally, even. His brother, of course, was one of the world’s great malapropism artists during his eight years in office: “Is our children learning? … I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family … Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream … Make the pie higher … Too many OB/GYNs aren’t able to practice their love with women all across the country.”
George H.W. Bush, though more in command of his syntax, had an ear for the awkward phrase, as in: “We’re enjoying sluggish times, and not enjoying them very much.” Or: “It’s no exaggeration to say the undecideds could go one way or another.” Or: “For seven and a half years I’ve worked alongside President Reagan. We’ve had triumphs. Made some mistakes. We’ve had some sex – uh, setbacks.”
Jeb Bush established his inheritance of the family trait earlier this year, with his kick-off foreign policy speech. He confused Iraq for Iran, said the Islamic State had 200,000 fighters instead of 20,000, and referred to the Islamic State leader as “the guy that’s the supreme leader, whatever his new title is, head of the caliphate.” He said immigration should be “a catalytic converter for sustained economic growth.”
But Jeb Bush’s slips tend to be different from those of his kin. His are more Freudian, involving accidental truths.
During his first run for Florida governor, in 1994, Jeb was asked what he would do for the African-American community other than welfare. “Probably nothing,” he said. He recently said that the answer, part of a longer answer about the need for “equality of opportunity,” was “taken out of context.” During that same campaign, he said welfare recipients “should be able to get their life together and find a husband, find a job, find other alternatives in terms of private charity or a combination of all three.” When his primary opponent pounced, Bush said it was “totally out of context.”
But Bush’s context, alas, is often difficult to contextualize. Consider his attempts in May to say whether he would have invaded Iraq, knowing what we know now about Saddam Hussein’s lack of weapons of mass destruction. First it was “I would have,” followed by “I don’t know.” Next, he said the hypothetical question is “a disservice for a lot of people that sacrificed.” Finally, he answered the question: “I would not have gone into Iraq.”
Bush had a reasonable claim that his “longer hours” comment was misinterpreted. He was attempting to say that incomes would be higher if more people could find full-time rather than part-time work.
But it’s dubious for him to claim that his remarks about phasing out Medicare were misconstrued. He said it at a town-hall meeting in New Hampshire as part of a call for entitlement reform: “We need to figure out a way to phase out this program for others and move to a new system that allows them to have something – because they’re not going to have anything.”
Likewise, it’s difficult to see much to “out of context” claims by Bush and his campaign after his use of the controversial phrase “anchor babies” and his remarks about funding women’s health care.
The context, in general, is plain: When Jeb Bush opens his mouth, danger occurs.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.