At the same latitude as Homer, Alaska, Tallinn, the Estonian capital where Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush's weeklong foreign trip concluded Saturday, barely sees a sunset in summer. Now, the former Florida governor heads straight to Miami, and the dawning of his official presidential campaign on Monday.
Bush will arrive in the southernmost metropolitan area of the continental U.S. with momentum from a largely successful—and slightly unusual—week in Europe.
While presidential candidates are more prone to visit traditional U.S. allies such as the United Kingdom or Israel, Bush called on government and business leaders in Germany, Poland and Estonia. The tour was designed to highlight his view of the shifting center of political power in Europe (Berlin), the calls for a global response to the conflict in Ukraine (Warsaw), and a rapidly advancing tech economy facing a potential threat from neighboring Russia (Tallinn).
But perhaps the biggest news of Bush's trip was the lack of it. After taking questions from a Berlin audience on his first day in Germany, he submitted to at least a few minutes of media inquiries each day following and setting himself apart from some of the leading presidential contenders in each party — not least by the way he avoided negative publicity.
After a slightly rocky start, when the launch of his trip was overshadowed by reports of a campaign staff shakeup, Bush had smooth sailing in Europe. He managed to meet with many top foreign and political leaders as well as the press, while avoiding the kind of gaffes that plagued Mitt Romney in 2012 or those that tripped up Republican Governors Scott Walker and Chris Christie, a pair of potential presidential candidates who made similar attempts at polishing their foreign policy resumes this year.
"From my perspective, it was a spectacular trip," Bush said told reporters on Saturday. "And I love Estonia."
Bush punted some questions on the trip. He refused to weigh-in on NATO membership for Ukraine or Georgia, and said he wasn't sure how how many permanent NATO troops should be stationed in Poland. He praised his father during a speech in Germany, yet steered clear of any mention of his brother, former President George W. Bush, whose legacy is considerably more controversial.
Still, he spoke forcefully about the potential military threats from Russia in Baltic countries like Estonia, supported the idea of permanently stationing NATO troops there, and renewed his call to help arm Ukraine's military. Unlike last month, when he engaged in a prolonged struggle over a question about Iraq, he struck a conciliatory yet decisive tone when asked about his 1995 book that included a passage lamenting the lack of shame associated with divorce and single parenthood.
Bush may have been most energized on the last day of the trip in Tallinn, where he sat for a two-hour presentation from e-Estonia, a pro-business group that showcases nation's rapidly advancing technology sector, which includes the birth of Skype and the emergence of other up-and-coming companies, like Transferwise, whose founder and chief executive office, Kristo Kaarmann, explained on Bloomberg TV in February how the company is revolutionizing global banking.
Bush, who is so fascinated by technology he had his Blackberry painted into his official portrait as governor in 2006, sat spellbound as he listened to presentations about e-voting (Estonia was the first country to hold a national election via the web), storing health records online, and an interface for teachers and parents to share and track student data.
What do Estonians credit for these civic successes? A robust IT budget, and trust from the citizens, who can see exactly who accesses their personal data. “People are trusting the system,” said Taavi Kotka, Estonia's chief information systems officer, adding, "That keeps the system together."
Bush shook his head as Kotka informed him Estonia outspends the U.S. by 600-to-1 per capita on information systems. He looked perplexed when Kotka explained the benefit of the country's online health by pointing to "baby pills." Kotka said the system makes it easier for women to obtain birth control, who can now avoid the potential shame of repeatedly visiting a doctor to obtain them. As a result, Kotka said, the abortion rate has declined.
Bush, who was presented with an Estonian-made Click and Grow herb garden as a parting gift, was taken by the forward-looking technology. He said the presentation was "pretty telling"
"They transformed their country by embracing, in advance and in anticipation of, the technological changes that are now common place," Bush told reporters. "Compare that to the most dynamic country in the world—I would say it’s the United States—but we have a static government on top of our dynamism that’s choking us off."
He compared Estonia's accomplishments to the Obamacare website, which has cost an estimated $2.1 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Spending on healthcare.gov, the main portal for millions of Americans to sign up for coverage under the new health care law, has been a matter of dispute between the administration and Republican opponents in Congress, who have tried to block funding.
"All of these things are an example of moonshot kind of thinking, going way beyond where we are," Bush said. "And that’s what I learned from these trips and that’s what I think the United States needs a lot more of, is to fix these things. And that’s going to require leadership."
Leadership, not coincidentally, will be a central theme in his campaign announcement on Monday.