Concord, New Hampshire (CNN)Jeb Bush went beyond his normal hesitation to criticize his brother and argued that the 43rd president could have done more to bring "budget discipline" to Washington.
Jeb Bush knocks brother George on spending
The former Florida governor was asked by a voter Thursday morning at an event in Concord, New Hampshire, if there was an issue where there's big space between he and his brother.
"Sure, I think that in Washington during my brother's time Republicans spent too much money," Bush said. "He could have used the veto power. He didn't have line item veto power, but he could have brought budget discipline to Washington, D.C."
Bush added that his comments seem "kind of quaint" now, considering that "budget deficits and spending went up astronomically" under President Barack Obama's administration. But he maintained that "having constraints on spending across the board would have been a good thing" during his brother's tenure as president, when the debt grew by $4.9 trillion.
As he's been pursuing a likely presidential bid, Bush has attempted to straddle the difficult line of distancing himself from his family and prove that he's his own man without coming across as disloyal. That challenge was amplified last week when Bush struggled to answer questions about the Iraq War that was started under his brother's leadership.
In his stump speech, Bush frequently highlights his record as governor, where he notes his administration cut taxes by $19 billion and reduced the state workforce by 13,000. He never fails to mention that he was given the nickname "Veto Corleone" by his critics because he vetoed 2,500 line items.
His naming of a specific policy difference was a departure from his normal reluctance to criticize his brother and father, both former presidents.
"I don't feel compelled though to go out of my way to criticize Republican presidents. I don't know, just call me a team player here. It just so happens the last two Republican presidents happen to be my dad and my brother," he said, as the audience laughed. "But you'll never hear me complaining about Ronald Reagan either. Every president makes mistakes."
Steve Duprey, a Republican National Committeeman from New Hampshire, said it was a smart move for Bush to highlight the contrast over spending.
"I think New Hampshire is probably the most fiscally conservative state in the country. I think the debt counts here," he said. "Even those of us who admired Bush 43 felt that the debt explosion and doubling of the debt was not good for the country, and I think it's smart to say he disagreed with that approach."
Bush was also sure to include actions taken by his brother that he supported, such as the efforts he made to address malaria and HIV/AIDS in Africa: "It was perhaps one of the most successful initiatives the United States has ever pursued on the continent of Africa."