Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, freshly “unemployed,” delivered a motivational speech to a receptive crowd of 500 in Washington, D.C. Saturday afternoon at the National Review Institute’s Conservative Summit.
Bush, calling himself a “proud conservative” advised those gathered to “stop moping” in the face of November’s electoral defeats and advised that Republicans “adhere to our conservative principles.” Governor Bush stated plainly: “Don’t abandon conservative principles. Don’t act like democrats. It does not work. We cannot reject the conservative philosophy.”
Introducing Bush, former Republican National Committee chair Ed Gillespie noted the obvious presumption that if his name were Jeb Smith, Governor Bush would likely be in Des Moines this weekend (like former First Lady Hillary Clinton happens to be). Asked about whether or not he’d consider a vice-presidential slot, Governor Bush was noncommittal, citing a need to “pause” and consider if he has such a thing in his DNA. Bush cited his dismay with “tenor of politics” as a demotivator.
The remarks about his future came after a vigorous defense of his brother. Bush, at the beginning of his lunch speech, directed comments to the press gathered, noting emphatically: “I’m not going to criticize the president of the United States.” Among other accomplishments, Bush noted, “I like Justice Roberts. I like Justice Alito…” and tax cuts. He would also go on to defend the president’s immigration policy.
While not shying away from his family and his name, Bush presented himself as a Washington outsider, calling himself a “reform conservative” and chiding Congress –- on both sides of the aisle. “Sadly, in Washington Republicans have lost their way,” Bush said. “We have become timid — people don’t want photo ops and the superficial. Democrats have nothing to offer here, but neither do we. We need to be for bold reform. They want people who will advocate reform – education, Social Security, health care”
Bush talked about the dignity of the individual, hitting hot-button issues including abortion and racial preferences. As one fan in the audience noted: “He touched plenty of third rails, just to show that you can and still succeed. His comments about abortion and right and wrong reminded everyone of his principled support of life from Schiavo to parental notification and consent. He relished telling the tale of his move to dismantle racial preferences. And he stuck to his guns through several tough questions about immigration even though he knew it wouldn’t please some of his audience.”
If there was one issue that dampened enthusiasm for Bush among those gathered, it was immigration, where the former governor seemed to criticize conservative assimilation-policy tendencies. “He lost half the room on immigration,” one Beltwayer noted. But even with that, Governor Bush presented himself as a conservative executive –- who governored as a conservative. As one attendee noted, “Like him or love him (about the range of opinion in the room as far as I could sense), he’s got charisma and stature and the oratorical skills of a natural leader. He’s also clearly getting in fighting shape and has a smile that is as easy and natural as his deep south Florida tan.”
Not obviously ready to jump in the presidential mix now –- as former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, speaking to the Conservative Summit Saturday night and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, speaking on Sunday (and announcing his exploratory committee on Monday) are — the governor also ruled nothing out.
Will he or won’t he? His name is Bush. But that doesn’t have to disqualify him forever. This conservative crowd seemed ready to consider him — at some point. Only 54 years old next, it’s not 2008 for nothing for Jeb Bush.
– Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor of National Review Online.