Jeb Bush Debuts ‘Reform Conservative’ Image in Detroit

In his first policy speech of the 2016 cycle, the likely presidential contender pitched his “right to rise” message.

National Journal
Rebecca Nelson
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Rebecca Nelson
Feb. 4, 2015, 7:55 a.m.

Jeb Bush is go­ing to change the mean­ing of “con­ser­vat­ive.”

At least, that’s the mes­sage the former Flor­ida gov­ernor tried to con­vey in a speech Wed­nes­day at the De­troit Eco­nom­ic Club. Build­ing on the theme of his Right to Rise PAC, which launched in Decem­ber, Bush em­phas­ized the im­port­ance of restor­ing Amer­ica’s middle class, and cre­at­ing the con­di­tions for people to achieve the Amer­ic­an dream.

“I know some in the me­dia think con­ser­vat­ives don’t care about the cit­ies,” he said. “But they are wrong. We be­lieve that every Amer­ic­an and in every com­munity has a right to pur­sue hap­pi­ness. They have the right to rise.”

Pre­view­ing his bud­ding — al­beit un­an­nounced — cam­paign, Bush her­al­ded his pos­it­ive, “re­form con­ser­vat­ive” vis­ion for the coun­try’s fu­ture pub­licly for the first time. He prom­ised that “in the com­ing months” he would de­tail his plan for suc­cess: “a mix of smart policies and re­forms to tap our re­sources and ca­pa­city to in­nov­ate, wheth­er it’s in en­ergy, man­u­fac­tur­ing, health care, or tech­no­logy.”

And, he told the audi­ence, “I’m get­ting in­volved in polit­ics again be­cause that’s where the work has to be­gin.”

“Let’s em­brace re­form every­where, es­pe­cially in our gov­ern­ment,” he said. “Let’s start with the simple prin­ciple of who holds the power. I say give Wash­ing­ton less and give states and loc­al gov­ern­ments more.

Bush’s speech also offered a glimpse in­to a likely cam­paign push to broaden the GOP’s reach and to in­tro­duce his policy goals — not just his fam­ous sur­name — to a new gen­er­a­tion of voters.

“Let’s go where our ideas can mat­ter most,” he said. “Where the fail­ures of lib­er­al gov­ern­ment are most ob­vi­ous. Let’s de­liv­er real con­ser­vat­ive suc­cess. And you know what will hap­pen? We’ll cre­ate a whole lot of new con­ser­vat­ives.”

The loc­a­tion of his speech, in a city strug­gling for a re­viv­al after de­clar­ing bank­ruptcy in 2013, was de­lib­er­ate, Bush aides told CNN. The city’s struggle to re­gain its eco­nom­ic foot­ing plays smoothly in­to Bush’s mes­sage of prosper­ity, they said.

“The re­cov­ery has been every­where but in the fam­ily paychecks,” Bush said. “The Amer­ic­an Dream has be­come a mirage for far too many. So the cent­ral ques­tion we face here in De­troit and across Amer­ica is this: Can we re­store that dream — that mor­al prom­ise — that each gen­er­a­tion can do bet­ter?”

In the spir­it of a “re­formed” con­ser­vat­ism, Bush said a cru­cial step in be­ing able to suc­ceed in Amer­ica is the kind of house­hold someone grew up in — but didn’t say that par­ents needed to be from a tra­di­tion­al mar­riage.

“So­cial sci­ent­ists across the ideo­lo­gic­al spec­trum agree on this: If you want to pre­dict wheth­er someone will gradu­ate from school, go to col­lege, and move for­ward in life, just find out one thing: “Were they raised in a lov­ing house­hold by two par­ents? If you didn’t, you can over­come it, but it’s very hard. If you did, you have a built-in ad­vant­age in life,” he said.

Un­like his 2016 rivals, most not­ably New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie, who stirred up con­tro­versy Monday when he said the gov­ern­ment should take a bal­anced view on vac­cin­a­tions, Bush had an un­equi­voc­al view on wheth­er par­ents should vac­cin­ate their kids.

“Par­ents ought to make sure their chil­dren are vac­cin­ated,” he said, lament­ing how quotes can be “mis­in­ter­preted” by the me­dia. “Par­ents have a re­spons­ib­il­ity to make sure their chil­dren are pro­tec­ted — over and out.”

For such a strong mes­sage, Bush’s speech de­liv­ery came across as lackluster and rushed. But his off-the-cuff an­swers dur­ing the Q&A after the re­marks re­vealed a cas­u­al, even funny, per­son­al­ity and a com­fort­able grasp of policy. De­fend­ing his dad — George H.W. Bush, the 41st pres­id­ent — he jok­ingly threatened that if any­one didn’t think he was the greatest man alive, “we will go out­side, un­less you are 6‘5 and 250 and much young­er than me. Then we will ne­go­ti­ate.”

Re­vital­iz­ing the middle class has be­come an ever-pop­u­lar pledge in the early stages of the 2016 race. Bush’s Flor­ida col­league and likely 2016 con­tender, Sen. Marco Ru­bio, re­leased a book last month, Amer­ic­an Dreams, centered on “restor­ing eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­ity for every­one,” and Christie has also called for a fo­cus on “middle-in­come earners.”

Though Bush has been care­ful to sep­ar­ate him­self from his broth­er and fath­er, his rebrand­ing of the con­ser­vat­ive la­bel mir­rors his broth­er’s first cam­paign. In an­noun­cing his pres­id­en­tial ex­plor­at­ory com­mit­tee in 1999, George W. Bush pitched his philo­sophy of “com­pas­sion­ate” con­ser­vat­ism.

“It’s con­ser­vat­ive to cut taxes,” the even­tu­al 43rd pres­id­ent said then. “It’s com­pas­sion­ate to give people more money to spend. It’s con­ser­vat­ive to in­sist upon loc­al con­trol of schools and set high stand­ards and in­sist upon res­ults. It is com­pas­sion­ate to make sure that not one single child gets left be­hind.”

George W. Bush also sought to sep­ar­ate him­self from his fath­er. But Jeb got the awk­ward­ness of his fam­ous fam­ily out of the way right at the be­gin­ning of his re­marks.

“I’m pretty proud of 41 and 43,” he said, also men­tion­ing his son, re­cently elec­ted Texas Land Com­mis­sion­er George P. Bush. “I know that’s hard for the polit­ic­al world to ac­cept, but it’s pretty easy for me to love them, and I love them un­con­di­tion­ally. Now the ther­ap­ists can opine about that.”

“I love my broth­er, and I think he’s been a great pres­id­ent,” he con­tin­ued later dur­ing the Q&A, telling the audi­ence he isn’t em­bar­rassed to be proud of him. “But I know for a fact if I’m go­ing to be suc­cess­ful go­ing bey­ond the con­sid­er­a­tion, that I’m go­ing to have to do it on my own.”

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