Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush urged the Republican Party to adopt a more positive message and become more inclusive, though he offered few specifics on his signature issue of immigration.
Mentioned as a potential 2016 Republican presidential contender, Bush told the Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Maryland, yesterday that the party is viewed as unwelcoming by many voters.
“We’re associated with being ‘anti’ everything,” he said at the event sponsored by the Washington-based American Conservative Union, which advocates less government spending.
“Way too many people believe Republicans are anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-worker,” Bush said. “Many voters are simply unwilling to choose our candidates, even though they share our core beliefs, because those voters feel unloved, unwanted and unwelcome.”
Bush, the brother and son of former presidents, is a leading voice in his party, especially on immigration and Hispanic politics. He spoke at CPAC as Republicans work to reshape their brand and become more competitive after failing last year to deny Democratic President Barack Obama a second term and falling short of winning control of the U.S. Senate.
In his speech, Bush told activists they must move beyond “divisive and extraneous issues that currently define the public debate.”
“Never again can the Republican Party simply write off entire segments of our society because we assume our principles have limited appeal,” he said, a remark that could be viewed as a swipe at the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney. “They have broad appeal. We need to be larger than that.”
Romney was hurt during last year’s campaign when, in a video recording at a fundraiser for him, he told donors that 47 percent of voters view themselves as victims who are dependent on government help and would never vote for him.
Bush, 60, largely steered clear of offering details about his vision for revamping the U.S. immigration system. His appearance came as questions have been raised about conflicting statements he has made on immigration, an issue closely watched by CPAC attendees.
Bush proposes in a new book that many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. be offered “permanent legal resident status” instead of citizenship. That’s counter to his past position, as well as that of a bipartisan group of senators -- including Florida Republican Marco Rubio -- studying legislation that would allow a pathway to citizenship.
Last week, Bush clarified his position by saying he’s open to allowing undocumented immigrants a route to citizenship, so long as it is done in a way that doesn’t penalize those who have followed the rules. He told the CPAC gathering that Congress must get “immigration right -- and I hope and pray that that’s the case this year.”
Amid technological and manufacturing improvements, Bush said the U.S. is poised for “our nation’s greatest century,” while also saying there’s a “very dark cloud” on the horizon.
“All of these advantages are at risk if the federal government continues on its arc of irresponsibility,” he said. “Our federal spending addiction and a lackluster system of public education are the two greatest impediments to achieving our potential in this century.”
Bush said Democrats have “channeled” anger and frustration about the economy’s struggles to attack success.
“This is enormously short-sighted because in a fair capitalist system, financial success should be the by-product of innovation and achievement, and without innovation and achievement we no longer move forward as a nation,” he said.
His speech drew a standing ovation at the end.
Bush, whose father George H.W. Bush and brother George W. Bush held the White House, highlighted the importance to the party of winning the presidency as he noted that Republicans now control 30 governorships.
“All of our successes at the state level, and all of the work being done in the private sector that’s incredible, can be undone if we continue to lose presidential elections,” he said. “We’ll forfeit our ability to chart a better future for our republic. This would be tragic in every sense of the word.”
Earlier yesterday, Romney gave an emotional thank you as he struck a positive tone for his party in his first public speech since losing in November to Obama.
As he recalled some of the people he met on the campaign trail, Romney told those at the conference that they shouldn’t be pessimistic amid talk of the party’s demographic challenges.
“We’ve lost races before, in the past, but those setbacks prepared us for larger victories,” he said. “It’s up to us to make sure that we learn from our mistakes -- and my mistakes -- and that we take advantage of that learning to make sure that we take back the nation.”
Romney’s speech was warmly received by CPAC attendees, who gave the former Massachusetts governor several standing ovations.
“We have not lost our way,” Romney said. “Our nation is full of aspirations and hungry for new solutions.”
Romney, 66, pointed to Republicans currently holding governorships, including some who weren’t invited to the event such as New Jersey’s Chris Christie, as being models for the party as it moves forward.
“I would urge us all to learn lessons that come from some of our greatest success stories, and that’s 30 Republican governors across the country,” Romney said. “These governors have shown that they’re able to reach across the aisle, offer innovative solutions and that they are willing to take the heat.”
Christie, 50, and several other Republican governors were excluded from the conference after they announced they’d seek federal money under Obama’s health-care law to expand Medicaid, an insurance program for the poor.
Romney seemed to make clear that he had no intention of running again for president.
“I’m sorry I won’t be your president,” he said. “But I will be your co-worker and I’ll work shoulder-to-shoulder alongside of you.”
Other potential presidential candidates who have addressed the conference include Rubio, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Texas Governor Rick Perry, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Romney’s vice presidential running mate. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is scheduled to speak today, the last of the three-day meeting.