It’s an evening with the Great Disrupter and there is shouting from the stage. “The only thing Hillary will need is a new pantsuit!” the speaker is bellowing. “Which is orange! Which has big numbers on the back!”
Hearing this raucous defamation of their least-favourite female Democrat, the right-minded burghers of Bettendorf, Iowa, holler and stomp. This is the annual Ronald Reagan dinner of the Scott County branch of the state Republican Party, at a gleaming new convention centre on the Mississippi River shore.
Tonight, the Bettendorfers have come to hear Jeb Bush, son and brother of presidents, attempt to further his own faltering campaign for the White House. It was the former front-runner Jeb Bush, of course, who was slain in four syllables by Donald Trump a few weeks ago: “low energy.” Now he’s fifth or sixth in the national polls and in danger of sinking out of view altogether, if such a thing is possible for a Bush.
“He’s getting his rear end handed to him,” appraises John D. DeDoncker, president and CEO of the Triumph Community Bank.
“He’s stupefied by what Trump has done to him,” says Judy Carr, a business-management software designer.
So there’s a strong hope in Bettendorf, as the dinner begins, that the former governor of Florida will finally demonstrate some passion from the podium.
But alas, it isn’t Jeb Bush who is body-slamming Hillary Clinton and suggesting she be fitted for a prisoner’s tuxedo. It’s Judy Davidson, chair of the Scott County GOP. Jeb is sitting to her right, eating salad.
There are about 500 men and women dining below the dais at round tables with chrysanthemum centrepieces. They have paid US$50 each for a fine cut of Iowa beef, a speech from John Ellis Bush, and a silent auction that offers autographed copies of books by 11 of the other Republican candidates—but none by Jeb; his isn’t out yet—as well as various elephant-themed ornaments and baby clothes, not to mention a $100 gift certificate for one-on-one instruction in how to carry and fire a concealed gun, either here or across the river in Ronald Reagan’s native Illinois.
So when a man at the podium begins to bellow about the swelling tide of Republicanism in Scott County and how eastern Iowa is certain to carry the next president to victory in 2016—and especially when he ends his full-throated oration with a wide-eyed roar of, “Thanks for giving me caffeine!”—well, this is the red meat that supporters of Jeb Bush’s campaign have been hungering for.
But this haranguer isn’t Bush, either. It’s Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the Iowa Republican party. Jeb is still tucking into his steak.
“There may be some truth in the ‘low-energy’ comment,” DeDoncker says, awaiting Bush’s keynote address. “He may need to change his disposition.” (The banker is one of 30 prominent Iowa business leaders who have pledged their support to Jeb.) “I think America likes bullies and, right now, America likes people who are not politically correct. Instead of addressing issues, Trump demonizes people.
“I’m not a person who will say that we’ve had enough Bushes or we’ve had enough Clintons—his last name doesn’t matter, and it shouldn’t matter,” DeDoncker continues. “Donald Trump may be screaming the loudest about his magnificent 10-foot wall on the Mexican border, but Jeb Bush had an excellent record in Florida of fiscal responsibility and conservatism. It’s the issues that matter to me. What Jeb needs to do is convince Iowa and America that he is a leader.”
“He’s quiet, he’s steady, and he’s driven, just like his mom,” says Carr. “He’s like a tortoise. He’ll do just fine.” (Indeed, Jeb Bush has described himself as a “joyful tortoise.” But, at six or seven per cent support in the latest opinion polls, down from 25 per cent in his halcyon ante-Trump spring, this may count for little against a venomous reptile from New York.)
“Donald Trump is not a very nice person. He’s a mean man,” Carr says. “Leaders are supposed to give you hope for the future, but Trump is saying the things that people feel. People are sick of political correctness. You can’t say a sentence without getting charged.”
“Do you think Jeb Bush really wants to be president?” the Scott County Republicans are asked. “Or is he just trying to please his mom and dad?” Carr is asked.
“I think he laboured over the decision,” she answers. “I think he wants to do it because he believes in himself. If you have been close to power, how can you not know what it means to be president?”
“I think Jeb Bush is a very nice person who is having a hard time throwing Donald Trump to the mat,” says DeDoncker. “He may have to.”
“I don’t think about the loud voices in the race. I don’t think about the 75 people who are running for president for the Republican Party,” John Ellis (Jeb) Bush says when his turn to speak finally comes. He is, as always, measured, gangly, personable, policy-heavy and a little undercaffeinated.
Bush touts his record as governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007—lower taxes, a downsized state government, a balanced budget—and vows repeatedly to “disrupt” the status quo in the nation’s capital. “We’re in a heap of trouble,” he says.
“Our enemies no longer fear us and they’re running wild.”
Bush rips into Barack Obama’s foreign policy and calls him “a President who believes that mullahs go quietly into the night.
“Name a country in the world where our relationship is better than it was when Barack Obama took office,” Bush asks the Iowans. Then he answers the question himself: “Iran. Cuba. Canada, for crying out loud! Our strongest trading partner! We’ve torn that relationship asunder!”
“I’m going to depopulate Washington,” he promises. “I know how to do this,” he says.
Ronald Wilson Reagan was born in 1911 about an hour’s drive east of Bettendorf in a tiny Illinois hamlet named Tampico, which is accented on the “Tam.” The natal apartment, on the second storey of a row of brick storefronts, has been lovingly recreated, as has the bank downstairs. And there is a museum filled with a delightful collection of Reaganite kitsch, including a doll that speaks the Gipper’s most memorable lines: “The harder the contest, the more glorious the triumph.”
“America is back, standing tall, looking to the 1980s with courage, conviction and hope.”
“Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Nearby is a poster, hand-painted by a grateful European exile, that proclaims: “You had freed my country Hungary and the world from leftist freeloading barbarians.”
“We’ve had enough Bushes, that’s all,” announces Sharon Sumner, a lifelong Tampican who leads tours of the Reagan birthplace and who has never been to Washington. “But I voted for his father and I voted for his brother, and I’ll probably vote for him, too.”
Sumner allows that she likes “that woman who is the Republican” and “the coloured gentleman,” but she doesn’t know Carly Fiorina or Dr. Ben Carson by name. But the Illinois primary is not until March 15, by which time most of “the 75 people”—including Jeb Bush himself—may have tapped out of the ﬁght.
Sumner is deposing about the 40th president’s childhood in Illinois, when in walk a man and woman and the man announces, “We are Mister and Missus Ronald Reagan from California!” They turn out to be the Ragons, not the Reagans, but close enough.
“There are some things that I really like about what Donald Trump is saying,” Ronald Ragon, a retired aircraft welder, says when asked about the presidential derby. “Jeb is having a hard time saying whether he’s really sensitizing about taking care of immigration. He’s kind of a weenie on that.”
“My heart hurts for Jeb,” says Sandy Ragon, Ronnie’s wife. “The liberal press has already made up their minds and they don’t give him a chance.”
“He’s no Ronald Reagan, that’s for sure,” Ragon says. “He was a man who had authority and leadership—someone to look up to.
“If I had that know-how, I’d run myself!”
By coincidence—or perhaps inevitably, given the number of candidates and the size of Iowa—Hillary Clinton, in green, not orange, is speaking in Davenport on the same day that Jeb Bush is at the Reagan dinner, just a couple of miles upriver. The city’s event centre is jammed with people of all ages and colours, which is something that cannot be said for the Scott County Republicans.
“You gotta look at people as human beings and not as caricatures and stereotypes,” she tells the crowd. Clinton’s not having the best Indian summer herself, with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders nearly equalling her in fundraising, with Vice President Joe Biden contemplating entering the race, and with what she herself calls “the drip, drip, drip” of damning or even incriminating news about her private email server continuing to be revealed. But with a nearly 20-point lead over both Biden and Sanders still holding nationally, as of last week’s Public Policy Polling survey, the ex-senator, ex-secretary of state and former first lady is sitting a lot prettier than Jeb Bush.
In Davenport, Clinton answers audience questions with poise and confidence, jibes about her appearance as a bartender on Saturday Night Live—“I have been trying out different possible careers”—rules out sending ground troops to Syria, promises to “hire more people and make ’em work three shifts” at the nation’s beleaguered hospitals for military veterans, and says that “people should have gone to jail” for their role in the financial crisis of 2008.
She is asked about Jeb Bush’s importune comment, immediately following the murderous rampage at a community college in Oregon, that “stuff happens.”
“This is not ‘stuff that happens,’ ” Clinton says. “We let it happen.”
“She’s been a politician most of her life, and that’s a plus for me,” says Sylvia Nyenhuis, who used to work for the J.C. Penney retail chain, when Hillary has departed. “She knows how to run a country. What does Trump know? How to declare bankruptcy and make money out of it?”
“I got chills when she started to speak,” says Lauren Johnson, sales manager at Davenport’s magniﬁcent old Blackhawk Hotel. “When Trump was here, I shook his hand. I did not get chills at that moment.”
“Jeb sure doesn’t seem to have that fire, does he?” a woman is pondering the morning after the Reagan dinner, half an hour downstream from Davenport and Bettendorf in the pretty little town of Muscatine. “Maybe he’s just doing this out of family duty.”
Mary Frieden, who says she hasn’t decided whom to support, and about 75 of her neighbours are waiting for Jeb Bush at a downtown coffeehouse. This is presidential campaigning in the private-jet age—an endless string of meet-and-greets in Muscatine, Iowa and Amherst, N.H., and Florence, S.C., three or four a day, day after day after day, for more than a year.
Only 18 weeks remain before Iowans will vote for each party’s nominee. Or rather, they will “caucus” on the potentially Arctic evening of Feb. 1, 2016, gathering in clumps in church and precinct halls to formally declare their fealty to one candidate or another.
“I have never lived in Washington,” Jeb Bush says when he gets the microphone, less than an arm’s length from the citizens who will make or break his campaign, and Trump’s, and Hillary’s. “I have the leadership skills to disrupt the beast. I hope you want a proven leader to turn the place upside-down—not to destroy it; to make it work.”
It is an audacious hope: that this Bush, any Bush, might be seen as detached from his family’s extraordinary saga of victory and elevation, denigration and disgrace. But this —and $100 million in corporate “super PAC” donations—is all Jeb Bush has to run on.
At the coffeehouse in Muscatine, Iowa, Bush is wearing a black metal bracelet engraved with the name of a Marine named Christopher Singer, who was killed at the age of 23 in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, fighting in one of his brother’s wars. “This is a rough-and-tumble business,” Bush says. “I’ve got to tell who I am. I’ve got to show my heart. I want to prove that I have a servant’s heart. Tearing down everybody else doesn’t prove that I have a servant’s heart.”
The room goes silent. Mary Frieden leans over and whispers: “Did you hear what he said? ‘A servant’s heart.’ Those words may have won me over.”
“You don’t seem low-energy to me,” someone in the coffee shop calls out, breaking the hush. Smiles the Great Disrupter: “You should see me in the afternoon!”