For Jeb Bush, the Q&A is the message

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
For Jeb Bush, the Q&A is the message

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Jeb Bush’s communication style is the message.

He hasn’t formally declared his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination or rolled out a policy agenda, but the former Florida governor is already setting a tone that’s distinguishing him from the rest of his likely opponents.

Dating back to his time in the statehouse, Bush has a track record of robust engagement with regular citizens and the press over email. He’s continued that since re-emerging on the political scene, emailing national political reporters directly himself — an almost unheard-of move in conservative circles more likely to bash the New York Times than engage with it. In his media appearances so far, he’s appeared to prefer question-and-answer sessions to the speeches that precede them. And he has hired communications staffers who are among the most well-liked by and friendly with the press in all of politics.

On Friday afternoon, Bush will make his first appearance at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference and test his more open, interactive approach before an audience of hard-core conservative organizers and activists. Bush aides asked CPAC organizers over a month ago if Bush could dispense with the traditional stump speech from a podium and instead do a question-and-answer interview, one aide told Yahoo News. Bush saw little point in giving a traditional address, because he wanted to confront and answer questions about his potential candidacy and his credentials as a conservative. The result is that he will be interviewed onstage by Fox News’ Sean Hannity for 20 minutes, instead of giving the sort of rousing, red-meat speech CPAC speakers often seek to do.

It’s intended to signal he’s interested in a two-way conversation with the base, rather than showcasing a top-down, take-it-or-leave it style. In that respect, it matches up well with an emerging narrative among conservative thinkers: that they are the ones most in sync with the Internet age, while liberals’ emphasis on central planning is an old-fashioned political philosophy out of step with an era of disruption and locally driven solutions to problems.

Bush’s appearance at CPAC has also attracted extra attention because he has established himself as the leader in the early 2016 running, and will be facing his first real test as a presumptive candidate, in an encounter with an audience predisposed to dislike him.

But his more informal approach is also a much safer route for a political figure viewed with suspicion by many conservatives, given that he would probably not win many standing ovations during a traditional speech. The tactic also sends a message, in and of itself, that Bush is working against one of his biggest weaknesses: his status as scion of a political dynasty, the son of a former president and the brother of another. The Q&A format suggests that Bush is interested in putting himself at the level of his audience and engaging with them, rather than talking at down at them or “lecturing” them, the Bush aide said.

Bush’s decision to use a Q&A format created something of a scramble among the other 2016 hopefuls. One CPAC organizer said that conference planners this year had decided to require every likely Republican presidential candidate to take questions from either a moderator or the audience. Numerous aides to likely 2016 candidates said that CPAC organizers offered them the choice of doing a 20-minute Q&A interview or speaking for 12 minutes and then taking questions for 8 minutes.

But an aide to another Republican presidential hopeful said that it was Bush’s decision to do an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, in particular, that set off a chain reaction among the other 2016 hopefuls, leading some of them to take the same approach as Bush and use the same format.

However the Q&A requirement came about, one of the prospective presidential candidates was not enthusiastic about the decision. “We fought it,” said an aide to that potential 2016 candidate, who believed it was an attempt by CPAC organizers — and by American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp in particular — to help Bush.

“[Schlapp] doesn’t want Jeb to get a bad reception, because he thinks that would make the conference look bad, and he’s trying to ease Jeb into things,” said the aide. “It’s kind of a downer. This is a CPAC rally. You want to go pump people up. It ruins the momentum, in my mind.”

ACU spokesman Ian Walters said the point of the Q&A was “to allow the grass-roots activists to have a voice in questioning the candidates."

“We've gone out of our way to make sure the way we treat the candidates is evenhanded," he said. And in practice, the requirement to take questions hardly cramped the style of those 2016 hopefuls who preferred to give a stemwinder rallying the conservative faithful. On Thursday, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal all gave traditional stump speeches, and followed them by taking a few short questions from the audience that they answered while standing. However, in a major departure from previous years, these speakers did not stand behind a lectern, but instead strode back and forth across a stage in front of the lectern.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie chose to do a full 20-minute Q&A session with conservative talk radio show host Laura Ingraham, who asked Christie a series of pointed questions.

An aide to Rand Paul said CPAC told the staff for the senator from Kentucky that he had to take questions when he appears on Friday morning. Paul will give a speech — like Cruz, Walker and Jindal — and then take a few questions. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who speaks first on Friday morning, is doing a full 20 minutes of questions and answers with Hannity, just like Bush.

Paul’s communication style certainly includes a healthy dose of stump speeches, but of all the likely 2016 candidates, he has been probably the most accessible to the press. He has also experimented with new technologies like SnapChat, conducting an interview with CNN over the social message service. (Even if it was a publicity stunt, it was experimental and boundary-pushing.)

Bush’s taste for public engagement goes back to his time as governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007. He gave out his email address publicly and was often glued to his Blackberry, responding robustly over email to messages from Floridians of all stripes. The emails were public record under Florida law, and in December, Bush took the proactive step of releasing all of them online (this of course also violated some writers’ privacy, thanks to a lack of redactions).

Bush told conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt on Wednesday that if he were to run a presidential campaign, it would “need to embrace technologies in ways that allow you to have two-way communication with potential voters.”

More recently, Bush’s three major speeches in 2015 have attracted attention for the degree to which he appeared uninterested in the normal conventions of giving a speech. He has rushed through his prepared remarks, dispensing with the traditional pauses for generating applause, and other rhetorical flourishes. Each speech was followed by a Q&A session in which Bush appeared more relaxed and engaged. Part of his comfort level with the format might be attributed to his personality: Bush has called himself an “introvert,” and so a traditional speech to him may feel more like a sales pitch, whereas responding to questions does not.

In two of the speeches, Bush took questions only from a moderator. After his Feb. 4 speech to the Detroit Economic Club, he took questions from the audience.

Being open to Q&A sessions is hardly unique to Bush. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the most likely 2016 Democratic presidential nominee if she decides to run, did just such a session with Re/code’s Kara Swisher earlier this week, after a speech in San Francisco. And Clinton has done a number of Q&As after paid speeches over the past few years.

Christie made sure to emphasize during his interview with Ingraham that he has done 128 town hall meetings in New Jersey during his more than five years as governor.

“We don’t do things with cards, where you have to fill out cards, and then people screen them for you and decide which questions that I’d like to answer. I sit in a room like this. We had 500 people yesterday in Moorestown, N.J. I speak, and then I took my coat off, and I took questions for an hour. Raise your hand, I call on you, and I take your question, and I answer it. And that’s what elected officials owe their constituents,” Christie said.

Ingraham asked Christie if this was “a veiled reference to Jeb Bush.”

“There have been a few events I know where we write pre-screened questions. Is that what you’re talking about, that the other Republican candidates, or at least the frontrunners, haven’t been as transparent?” Ingraham said.

“What I’m saying, Laura, is that everyone who aspires to high positions of leadership in their states or in their country should be willing to take unscreened, unrehearsed questions from the people who pay their salary,” Christie said. “It is not only informative. It is also good theater.”