For close to a decade, Jeb Bush’s audiences have almost exclusively been people who have paid good money to hear him speak.
That changes today, when he appears at the Conservative Political Action Conference — where potential 2016 presidential rivals are already taking shots at him and some activists are organizing a walk-out.
NYU college student Ivan Teo said he doesn’t consider Bush “one of us,” but does give him credit for at least showing up on hostile turf. “I think him coming here, it’s brave. And I think that it’s great that we have a chance to ask him questions.”
Bush, the former Florida governor and the brother and son of the last two Republican presidents, is the presumed Republican establishment favorite in a venue that historically has not been kind to the party establishment.
In 2011, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul won the CPAC presidential straw poll, while Mitt Romney won the 2012 nomination. In 2007, Romney won the straw poll, while Arizona Sen. John McCain won the GOP nomination the following year.
And while many Republicans with presidential ambitions make CPAC an annual pilgrimage, Bush during his years as governor avoided the gathering as part of his overall strategy of staying away from events that would feed presidential speculation. Bush ended that self-imposed exile in 2013, and got a decidedly indifferent reception. His was the Friday night keynote speech — the “Ronald Reagan Dinner” — and Bush had just recently published his book Immigration Wars, that advocated an overhaul similar to what the Senate wound up passing a few months later.
Bush used the occasion to scold his party for seeming “anti-everything,” but also prescribed the same optimistic message about a “right to rise” that is the theme of his pre-campaign. Just months after the 2012 presidential election, Bush’s speech did not particularly offend his audience as much as fail to interest them at all. Bush spoke for just under 20 minutes, during which time many in the ballroom carried on conversations over dessert and coffee, ducked outside to answer phone calls, or just left entirely.
Before and after that, he was primarily speaking to corporate audiences that had paid him tens of thousands of dollars to hear him. Even in recent appearances in Detroit and Chicago, where he gave speeches as part of his “Right to Rise” political committees, Bush spoke to sympathetic audiences, and then took gentle questions from moderators.
Bush did do a warm-up of sorts Wednesday evening, appearing on conservative talk-radio host Hugh Hewitt’s program, but even there the questioning was mild — primarily about foreign policy and the military.
Neither immigration nor the Common Core education standards, which are reviled by many of the GOP’s most conservative voters, came up in that interview. Both are certain to be asked about Friday, when Bush is questioned for 20 minutes by Fox News host Sean Hannity.
Bush, 62, compiled what was considered a deeply conservative record in his two terms as Florida governor, including tax cuts totaling $14 billion, support of gun rights, the creation of private school voucher programs and the use of public money to persuade women to avoid abortions. But his support for more stringent education standards in Common Core and an immigration overhaul that would not deport all those in this country illegally has angered many conservatives.