West Palm Beach – In a ballroom at a historic hotel on the beaches of southern Florida, Jeb Bush gave the first hint of how he will address conservative audiences as the Republican primary gets underway.
The former Florida governor, who has suggested he will not go out of his way to play to the party’s conservative base, took the podium Thursday evening at the Club for Growth’s winter economic conference. The well-heeled crowd assembled at the Breakers, the sprawling, historic hotel, is not a natural audience for Bush. Founded in 1999 as an anti-establishment, free-market group, the Club has helped toss dozens of moderate Republicans from office since its founding 15 years ago.
But at the podium tonight, before about 150 of the Club’s top donors, Bush adjusted his rhetoric to his audience. He championed economic “growth at all at all costs”; he lambasted the president’s “so-called economic recovery”; and he tore into the Federal Communications Commission’s recent ruling on net neutrality, which has for weeks now stoked the ire of conservatives. “We shouldn’t use a 1933 law” to regulate access to the Internet, Bush said, garnering applause from an otherwise subdued crowd.
Even on the thorny issue of Common Core, the former Florida governor began to relent. In a question-and-answer session with Club president David McIntosh, Bush noted almost under his breath that the standards were implemented after he left office and then emphasized that federal government “shouldn’t have any say” in the creation of education standards. It appears that will be his message on the campaign trail, although critics argue the standards are now inextricably linked to the federal government because President Obama has tied some federal grants and policy waivers to their adoption.
The former Florida governor also reminded the crowd of his accomplishments over eight years as governor. “The narratives about me are a little different than what I got to do as governor,” he said.
Indeed, Bush’s positions on Common Core and immigration have obscured an economic record that has a lot of appeal to conservatives. He boasted of earning the nickname “Veto Corleone” from Florida lawmakers after vetoing hundreds of millions of dollars of items in the state budget and reminded the crowd of his efforts to end state-sponsored affirmative action and to remake the state’s education system by introducing school vouchers. (On affirmative action, Bush did issue an executive order ending racial preferences in university admissions and for businesses owned by women and minorities, but he opposed a ballot initiative that would have outlawed racial preferences entirely, calling the measure “divisive.”)
Almost all of the potential Republican presidential contenders are shuttling this weekend between snowy Maryland, where the Conservative Political Action Conference is taking place, and sunny Palm Beach. Ted Cruz is scheduled to address the crowd here on Friday evening and Scott Walker, Mike Pence, Bobby Jindal, and Marco Rubio will follow on Saturday. The Club is for the first time this year opening its closed-door conference to reporters, who will be allowed partial access to the weekend’s events – to the keynote speeches delivered by the presidential hopefuls but not to the many panel sessions the organizations puts on for the 150–200 donors present or to the one-on-one meetings it arranges between donors and the Republican congressmen and senators who are also in town for the event.
Rick Perry, who is expecting a second grandchild this weekend, is not attending, and neither Mike Huckabee nor Chris Christie, who is fundraising on the West Coast, was invited. The Club, which focuses exclusively on economic issues, has long clashed with Huckabee on fiscal issues and has also publicly sparred with Christie: Former Club president Chris Chocola, for example, slammed Christie after the New Jersey governor tore into House speaker John Boehner for delaying the disbursement of relief funds in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
Christie “lost his opportunity to cement his position” in New Jersey, Chocola, who has since been succeeded by McIntosh, said at the time. The incident underscored the sorts of challenges that Christie, who has governed in a fiscally troubled Democratic state and been forced to spar with a Democrat-controlled legislature, is likely to face on the campaign trail if he launches a White House bid.
According to Kevin Madden, who served as a senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, Christie must decide whether he is “going to make an effort to develop a relationship” and talk about the sorts of fiscal issues that Club members care about, or whether he thinks he can “do it without them.”
“He says he’s his own guy, that he’s not going to cater to anybody,” Madden says. “But is he going to make a play for or is he going to make a specific appeal for pro-growth, limited government conservatives?”
That the Club, which was founded as a renegade group determined to push free-market conservatism into the GOP mainstream, can now draw nearly all of the potential Republican presidential contenders to its conference is a testament to its success. And at a time when hundreds of outside groups are competing for influence, from Heritage Action for America to the Tea Party Express, and recent reports have cast doubt on how effectively they spend donor money, the Club has become, and remains, the preeminent player in its space.
For Scott Walker, whose speech in Iowa last month launched him to national stardom and ignited weeks of relentless media coverage, the expectations game is high. One Club insider says Walker is notorious for delivering the most boring speech of the weekend. Members will be watching, says the insider, whether “it will be the same old boring Scott Walker who spoke at previous club meetings or whether he is actually is performing at a higher level.”
The governor’s record of genuine reform is one that will play well in Palm Beach, and he certainly kept his momentum going at CPAC on Thursday, where he was animated, energetic, and unperturbed by a heckler in the crowd. He promised that next week, Wisconsin would become the 25th state in the country with right-to-work laws. The crowd, on its feet, went wild with chants of, “Run, Scott, run!”
Bush kicked off the events in Florida on Thursday, but it is the state’s junior senator, Marco Rubio, who is delivering the last of the major remarks on Saturday evening. The media’s relentless focus on Bush in recent months has led many to take their eyes off of his protégé.
At the close of his remarks, Bush urged the Club to encourage the candidates it supports “to be big, to be bold, and to be hopeful and optimistic.” That sounds a lot like Rubio, whom the Club supported strongly in 2010 when he upended the political establishment and drove Charlie Crist out of the Republican party. Its donors remain some of his biggest fans.
— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.