“I’m just here to introduce our speaker,” President Biddy Martin said on a snowy Tuesday evening as she stood before a cheering audience in Johnson Chapel, which was packed to capacity. “Who is our speaker?” Martin asked.
“Jeb!” came the response.
As Martin noted, the visit of former Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush was the culmination of a series of events that had begun several years before when Robert Lucido ’15, urged on by Professor Thomas Dumm (a self-professed liberal), revived the Amherst College Republicans student group and brought several high-profile conservative speakers to campus.
Bush was one of the speakers Lucido worked hard to bring, Martin said. Describing Bush as a "model conservative governor [and] a moderate candidate," Martin said that Bush stood out on the presidential campaign trail for his reasoned and empathic responses to questions.
“I have personally thanked him tonight for maintaining his decency, which I consider essential to a democracy,” she said.
After sharing a few self-effacing anecdotes—including a story about a stranger in an airport who exclaimed, “You used to be Jeb Bush, right!”—the former governor became impassioned. He spoke of his granddaughter’s multicultural background, with her Canadian-Iraqi-Texan-Mexican heritage, and described her as “truly an American story”—a story echoed by immigrants who arrive in the United States from around the world.
"Our political system now is designed around dividing us up, pushing someone down to make yourself look better," he said, "rather than forging consensus to begin to solve problems."
Turning to economics, Bush argued that it was automation and artificial intelligence, not an influx of foreigners, that interrupted the American Dream. Whether it was improved UPS routes that made drivers redundant or self-serve soda machines that replaced attendants at movie theaters, he said the trend is towards efficient systems beating out low-skilled labor.
“For the first time in American history, people don’t think their children will have more opportunities than what they had,” he said. “Americans don’t do pessimism really well ... But we are fantastic when we believe the future is brighter than what we have today.”
While opportunities remain for those with “the power of knowledge to ride this wave,” Bush cited dismal educational figures—60 percent of college students graduate with a four-year degree in six years and only a third of high school students are college- or career-ready—as evidence that the education system is failing.
"We have this huge gap and the systems we've been relying on aren't working," he said. "And yet there isn't a conversation about this."
The debate, Bush said, should not be over whether to grow the economy (“Of course we should,” he said) but instead how to distribute that wealth and do it in a way that helps those who would otherwise be left behind.
He ticked off a list of changes that would make such growth possible: business and government regulations adapted to be more effective, energy reforms that encourage competition and immigration policies that favor increasing the number of skilled workers instead of reunifying families.
“One of the things that identifies our country more than any other country in the world is a set of shared values,” he said. “If you embrace these values, it doesn’t matter if you came yesterday or came on the Mayflower, you’re as American as anyone else.”
His final recommendation was a reform of education policies that would stop passing along students who perform poorly and instead create a culture of lifelong learning.
“Kids should be able to read by the end of third grade, period,” he said. “It boggles my mind that we accept there’s no marching in the streets for kids on behalf of our society who are not learning. Because I know what's going to happen to them and you do, too.”
Asked in the Q&A about his failed run as a presidential candidate and the choices he made as governor, Bush said he did not regret the decisions he made and could not have changed who he was or what he believed.
“You make a lot of mistakes when you are aggressive in trying to pursue policy,” he said, adding a self-deprecating note: “I didn’t try to be popular, and I succeeded.”
After volunteering that he voted for no presidential candidate in 2016, Bush said he wanted to "give the president the benefit of the doubt" and voiced support for President Donald Trump's cabinet nominees. (Booed during his defense of Betsy DeVos, the nominee for secretary of education, he said, “I don’t care what you think.”)
“Irrespective of who won the election, I think we need to give the president of the United States and democracy a chance to work,” Bush said. “Our democracy can work. Give it the chance to work and give the president a chance to succeed or fail—based on his deeds, not his words.”
Video of the full event is available to the Amherst College community (login required).