Photos by Derek Kouyoumjian
“We have a Muslim president! Why not a Canadian one?”
The statement was made with so little concern that I assumed it was a joke. The gaggle of aging men behind me appeared to be associated with Colby-Sawyer College, which was hosting Jeb Bush less than a week before the New Hampshire primary. Once I listened in a little more, however, I sensed they weren’t kidding. Which is apparently representative of Republicans in the Granite State these days— you just can’t tell any more if they’re old school conservatives or new breed fire-breathers marching to the tune of somebody like Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
With Bush’s disappointing turn and a Cruz ascendance in Iowa, the narrative of a threatened GOP establishment continues to be written in New Hampshire. But what that establishment represents—and what distinguishes it from the politics of upstarts who are up against its barricades—gets more complicated to discern with every town hall.
I opted for a cheap seat rather than the press table at Colby-Sawyer in New London, about an hour north of Manchester. The crowd was equal parts college students who had wandered in and elderly couples, with a couple of families and middle-aged single men scattered around for good measure. Bro country and Frank Sinatra alternated on the makeshift speakers.
In the front row, a young man in a blue suit with neat blonde hair sat alone. With his rosy cheeks and tie clip, he looked straight out of Central Casting for the Yale Young Republicans, if not a smiling campaign aide. According to the student peanut gallery behind me, the kid is indeed a staunch Bush supporter, the sight of which kind of made you think about the bygone era from which his campaign seems to have emerged.
An elderly woman sitting beside me said that she and her husband are independents. She’s a retired social worker who came because the venue is close to her home, and prepared a question in the event she was called on. “I want to ask about all of this talk about carpet bombing in the Middle East,” she told me. “That would be the most dangerous … ”
My neighbor was cut off by Eric Cantor, the former Republican House majority leader from Virginia who introduced Bush. Then came the awfully generic pledges and platforms—a “safer,” “stronger,” “freer” country, economic growth through deregulation, pro-business tax policy. According to Jeb, health care would be fixed by repealing Obamacare, education would be transformed through “accountability” and “school choice”—those classic privatization buzzwords—and the U.S. has to “rebuild” its military to “reclaim its traditional role, not as policeman of the world but as its leader.” Establishment conservatism, in other words, whatever that even means anymore.
For dramatic effect, Jeb brought a significant amount of the neoconservative hawkishness that defined his big brother’s administration, and to some extent that of his father. “You don’t send warnings down,” he barked. “You kill them.” Jeb added that “lawyers in Washington” are getting in the way of successful engagement with ISIS. Christianity—subdued, almost coded—also crept in, with Bush stating his belief multiple times that God guides his decisions.
Photo by Lukas Vrbka
On my way to Robie’s Country Store in Hooksett afterward for a meet and greet with Cruz, I thought about how much Bush needs all the God votes he can get. Outside the event, a number of believers drove that point home.
“Lukas, have you heard the gospel of our lord?”
We were shivering in line. The young man seemed to be in his early 20s, and I overheard him tell a family friend from church that he was saving up to buy a ring and get married. He wants to eventually do missionary work in Brazil, but for now he’s working on saving my soul here in New Hampshire. They seemed more approachable than the guy with the “All Liberal Media Lies” poster. I asked why they came.
“Does your faith draw you to Cruz?”
“Oh yes” he said. “If we all lived according to the Bible, there would be no problems and no suffering in this country.”
With the line moving a little I found myself crammed in a vestibule next to a man in a hat that said “Cuba” who was there with his wife and two children. The place was packed, but we were able to spy Cruz in the rear of the store surrounded by a semicircle of people. On the walls behind him, old campaign memorabilia lined the walls: “Jack Kemp ‘88.” “Goldwater ‘64.” “Vote Republican.”
Cruz’s language was less specific, more aggressive than Bush’s. This was a stump speech, nothing more. Cruz described a country that has drifted away from the Constitution and “Judeo-Christian values,” etc. But in the few details he did offer, his plans actually resembled those pitched earlier by Jeb. When diving into questions of economic, foreign, and social policy, Cruz praised the same fundamental free market principles and militarism all members of the Bush family worship. Like Jeb, the senator also mentioned the need to preserve Medicare and Social Security.
“It may seem like we are in impossible circumstances,” Cruz said, followed by a pause. “But 36 years ago, men and women all over this country rose up in the Reagan revolution! And if New Hampshire had not risen up, millions would not have been freed. The Berlin wall would not have been taken down …”
“Yea! Yea!” someone shouted. All I could see from the vestibule was a pink hand thrusting a camo hat into the air.
Before being squeezed out due to the limited space, I got to hear one more question, “I’m a passionate centrist, a small business owner and I have cancer,” a woman asked. “Can you be my president?”
I slithered out, back into the rain.