SAN FRANCISCO — Jeb Bush previewed the ideas at the heart of his likely presidential campaign, delivering a sweeping address here Friday about the economy, foreign affairs and energy exploration, and challenging the country to question “every aspect of how government works.”
In his first major speech since stepping into the 2016 presidential sweepstakes in December, the Republican former Florida governor spoke confidently and in significant detail about the broad range of issues beginning to shape the campaign for the White House. Bush signaled he would offer the country the “adult conversations” he said are lacking in Washington and would focus on people who have been left out of the economic revival.
“Sixty percent of Americans believe that we’re still in a recession,” Bush said. “They’re not dumb. It’s because they are in a recession. They’re frustrated, and they see a small portion of the population on the economy’s up escalator. Portfolios are strong, but paychecks are weak. Millions of Americans want to move forward in their lives — they want to rise — but they’re losing hope.”
Bush was sharply critical of Washington — not only of President Obama but also of the Republican-controlled Congress — saying there were too many “academic and political hacks” with “hard-core ideology” who are running the country without making progress.
“They’re basically Maytag repairmen,” he said. “Nothing gets done.” Bush added, “It is time to challenge every aspect of how government works — how it taxes, how it regulates, how it spends — to open up economic opportunity for all.”
Bush delivered Friday’s keynote address to the National Automobile Dealers Association’s annual convention in San Francisco, one of his final paid speaking appearances before he turns his attention fully to the 2016 campaign.
Bush — who has been on an ambitious, national tour to raise money for Right to Rise PAC, his leadership political action committee — was careful to say he was only “seriously considering the possibility of running.” He told the crowd of 4,000 auto dealers and industry executives, “Your checkbook, by the way, is very safe here.”
But Bush used the opportunity to signal the kind of campaign he intends to run. His message contrasted starkly with the rhetoric expected from some other hopefuls who are gathering in Iowa this weekend for a political festival hosted by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), an anti-immigration reform firebrand.
Bush drew loud and sustained applause when he called for immigration reform that would provide a path to legalized status for undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
“We have a history of allowing people to come in legally to embrace our values and pursue their dreams in a way that creates prosperity for all of us,” Bush said. “No country can do this like America. Our national identity is not based on race or some kind of exclusionary belief. Historically, the unwritten contract has been, come legally to our country, embrace our values, learn English, work and you can be as American as anyone else.”
In an subtle swipe at other GOP leaders and potential rivals who rally the conservative base with hot tirades about Obama’s overreach, Bush said the Republican Party will win back the White House only if it offers an optimistic message. “Hope and a positive agenda wins out over anger and reaction every day of the week,” he said.
Bush’s called for simplification of the tax code, including lowering rates and “eliminating as many loopholes as possible.” He also called for more energy exploration. Approving construction of the Keystone XL pipeline was “a no-brainer,” he said, as is support for horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracking.
“It’s not cool here in San Francisco to talk about this,” he joked. But, “It’s cool in places like North Dakota and West Texas and South Texas. It’s cool because it creates significant economic activity.”
In his appearance here, Bush did not shy away from his place in a dynastic political family. The bio video that played before he spoke was heavy on references to his father, former president George H.W. Bush, and brother, former president George W. Bush. Jeb Bush cited both in his remarks, saying his dad was a model for leadership, especially on foreign policy, and noting that his brother had become a rather fine painter. “Who would’ve thunk it?” he said.
Bush is not alone among likely 2016 presidential candidates on the paid speaking circuit. Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton has been delivering speeches and making other appearances for pay since stepping down as secretary of state in 2013.
Clinton was a keynote speaker at last year’s auto dealers convention, in New Orleans, where she disclosed that she had not driven a car in nearly 20 years. “The last time I actually drove a car myself was 1996,” she said. Jokingly, she added: “I remember it very well. Unfortunately, so does the Secret Service, which is why I haven’t driven since then.”
Bush made an indirect reference to Clinton’s remark. During the question-and-answer session, when the association’s chairman asked Bush his favorite kind of car, Bush said he just bought a Ford Fusion. “For the record, I do drive,” he said, adding that he plans to return to the dealership for a two-hour tutorial on the Fusion’s technology.
Bush was asked about his Thursday meeting in Utah with Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee who also is exploring a 2016 run. The two men, each a favorite of the party establishment, are on a collision course, but Bush said they mostly avoided talk about the campaign.
“We talked about the Patriots,” Bush said. “We talked a little bit about politics, not as much as you might imagine. We talked about the future of the country. We talked about the need for a more engaged foreign policy.. . .The awkward side of this, about running and such, we put aside.”
Answering questions on stage, Bush opened a window on his personal life. He said he loves Sundays — “It’s Sunday fun day” — because he doesn’t work. “I play golf really fast so I can have breakfast really fast so I can go to Mass slower — can’t ask the priest to accelerate that. I probably would if I could.”
He called himself “an introvert,” saying he would “rather read a book than go out and get in a conga line.”
“Introverts actually are grinders,” Bush said. “They identify a problem by and large, and then they overcome it. But I learned that in order to make your case or in order to serve or in order to advance a cause, you have to connect with people, and you can’t connect with people if you’re back in the corner reading a book.”