His middle initial, “E” officially stands for Ellis. But ever since Jeb Bush hit the campaign trail, that “E” seems to stand for “Er, that’s not what I meant . . .”
The Miami-Dade resident didn’t mean that Hispanic women were coming to the United States illegally to have “anchor babies,” a slur that he used last month when trying to out-Trump Donald Trump. He meant Asian women who came to give birth.
He mused that he was “not sure we need half a billion dollars for women’s health issues,” then issued a statement walking the comment way back: “I misspoke, as there are countless community health centers, rural clinics and other women’s health organizations that need to be fully funded.”
Asked in South Carolina how Republicans were going to attract African Americans, Mr. Bush said, “Our message is one of hope and aspiration. It isn’t one of division and get in line and we’ll take care of you with free stuff.” This week, he said he meant to say that more economic opportunity would allow African Americans to rise out of poverty and off of welfare.
Fair enough. But, at this point, it’s curious that this seasoned politician who wants to run the country can’t say what he means the first time and let the chips fall where they may. That’s how Mr. Trump does it.
Mr. Bush reflexively fell back on that tired trope of African Americans as chronic government dependents not because it would woo black voters. No, it was a wink to his white audience that said, “You all know what I’m talking about.” It was a little slicker than Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens,” but an insulting, one-dimensional pitch, nonetheless.
And Jeb is supposed to be the smart one in the race.
It was a slap to the black woman who puts on a police uniform every day to protect and serve; and to the black accountant gearing up for tax time; or the one developing software to make life easier for us all. A just-released Nielsen report found that the size and influence of African Americans making $75,000 or more annually is growing faster than those of non-Hispanic whites across all income segments. And, contrary to the trope, U.S. Department of Agriculture says that 40.2 percent of food-stamp recipients are white, 25.7 percent are black, 10.3 percent are Hispanic.
But Mr. Bush’s comment hewed more to the divisive rhetoric the GOP swears it hates coming from Mr. Trump, who excoriated undocumented Mexicans immigrants, while Ben Carson has gotten heat for his views of Muslim Americans and their ability to serve this country honorably in the White House.
The difference is that Mr. Bush has a record on which to run, and it’s fair to say that as Florida governor, he had a hot-and-cold relationship with the state’s African-American population. There were the nice optics and the good intentions of the inner-city charter school that he co-founded with the Miami Urban League’s T. Willard Fair. But he eliminated affirmative action in state universities, and though more black and Hispanics attend them, the percentage of black students has dropped since his order.
Yes, the Confederate flag came down from the Capitol during Mr. Bush’s tenure, but stealthily — he sure didn’t crow about it. And then there was the flawed attempt to remove African-American voters from the rolls and the law he signed limiting early-voting hours, including “souls to the polls” Sunday, a big day for African Americans to vote after church.
African-American voters will not take his claims — or those of any other blinkered candidate — seriously until they acknowledge the diversity among America’s black population. Until they truly speak the language of inclusion, and not coded words that continue to cast blacks a group apart, one that must be “dealt with.” Until they have the temerity to slap down racism in the GOP. Colin Powell’s former chief of staff Col. Lawrence Wilkerson put it out there in 2012: “The real reason a considerable portion of my party wants President Obama out of the White House has nothing to do with the content of his character, nothing to do with his competence as commander in chief and president, and everything to do with the color of his skin. And that’s despicable.”
Mr. Bush has the opportunity to show that he thinks so, too. After all, he’s the smart one.