On Friday, Jeb Bush gave a group of Christian conservatives what they wanted: A speech entirely focused on religious liberty.
“Today’s not gonna be a political speech,” Bush told the crowd assembled at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. for the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority Conference. “I thought I would talk a little bit more about my journey of faith.”
In substance, it was a similar speech to one Ted Cruz delivered at the Omni Shoreham on Thursday. Both talked about the strains many Christian conservatives feel have been put on them under Obama administration.
“My belief is that religious freedom is under attack in ways that we’ve never seen before,” Bush said Friday. “Religious liberty has never been more threatened in America than right now today,” was how Cruz phrased it on Thursday.
But the delivery could not have been more different.
Where Cruz delivered a passionate sermon that brought the crowd to their feet, Bush’s delivery was uncomfortable. At times, he stumbled over his words. On several occasions, a line drew a smattering of applause, only for Bush to plow on through his speech, talking over the clapping and nipping any crowd energy in the bud. Toward the end he started speaking faster and faster, as though he were concerned about time.
In direct interactions with voters, Bush earns rave reviews. But the former Florida governor has been criticized in the past for his speech delivery, and that was on display Friday.
Religious liberty is not a new theme for Bush. It’s a subject he addressed rather prominently in his announcement speech on Monday in Miami, and he continued to talk about it as he toured early primary states the rest of the week. He’d previously discussed it at great length in a May commencement address at Liberty University.
What’s more, Bush has a compelling story to tell about his own faith and how it has impacted his political career. He converted to Catholicism two decades ago, fulfilling a promise to his wife, and has said it is something that “made me a better person.” As governor of Florida, he championed social-conservative causes, famously attempting to prevent Terri Schiavo from being taken off life support after she entered a vegetative state.
In his speech today, Bush spoke of his record, saying he would never espouse the “politically correct” notion that his faith would not influence his political decisions.
“The end point is a certain kind of politician that we’ve all heard before, the guy whose moral convictions are so private, so deeply personal, that he refuses to even impose them on himself,” Bush said. “Well, that’s not me.”
But he at times seemed most focused on getting through to the end of his speech.
#related#“We’ve always left things better for the next generation. Can we honestly say today that that’s the case? We can’t. But we can fix it. I honestly believe we can,” Bush said, and the crowd began to applaud. But instead of pausing, he continued speaking, picking up his pace. Though there was a giant clock facing the stage that tracked each speaker’s remaining time, event organizers took no visible steps to end a speech if it went over.
In direct interactions with voters, Bush earns rave reviews. But the former Florida governor has been criticized in the past for his speech delivery, and that was on display Friday. Whereas in his presidential announcement Monday he seemed confident and collected — if at times bashful at the crowd’s adoring cheers — on Friday much of that seemed to be gone.
The growing field of 2016 Republican presidential candidates includes gifted orators — Cruz and Rubio perhaps the most notable. Bush begins the race as a frontrunner, but his ability to deliver on a big stage remains unproven.
— Alexis Levinson is the senior political reporter at National Review.