Jeb Bush Starts Sounding Like a Candidate

In one of his last paid speeches, the former Florida governor previews his positions on immigration, education, and the economy.

on January 23, 2015 in San Francisco, California.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan

It was his highest-profile speech since moving in serious ways toward a presidential campaign, but Jeb Bush was not quite ready to go all the way.

"Since this is not a partisan political crowd, I'm trying to think of things I can talk about that aren't necessarily political," he told a packed ballroom at the National Automobile Dealers Association conference on Friday. That line, which came nearly 12 minutes into his remarks, captured a man at the tail end of a string of paid public speeches and at the beginning of a succession of stump speeches that could lead all the way to the White House. 

"You didn't come here for a political ad, and you're not going to get one, and your checkbook, by the way, is very safe here today as well," said Bush, who is in the midst of a string of 60 paid speeches over 70 days that will help bring him closer to his reported goal of raising $100 million in the first three months of the year. Bush was paid for his speech to Friday's receptive but not wildly enthusiastic crowd, but it wasn't a fundraiser for his political action committee. He plans to donate the proceeds from the speech to charity, said his spokeswoman, Kristy Campbell.

Evolution, a mediocre Journey tribute band, took the stage before Bush's speech. As they belted out "Don't Stop Believing," the attendees debated the inevitable topic of whether Bush had a shot at winning the Republican nomination. 

"I think Romney has a better chance than Jeb, because he's run before, and he's not a Bush," Margie Kinsinger, the CFO at Fred Martin Auto Group in Akron, Ohio, said. "I just don't think he can excite the base."

"I'm waiting to see if Jeb is as good as his brother," Anita Baughman of Canton, Ohio, countered. Both George H.W. Bush and Jeb's brother have delivered speeches at the NADA convention, which draws participants of a more conservative bent that one finds in the city that hosts it. Still, the speech proved something of an audition for many Republicans who watched it, and two of Bush's defining issues quickly came to the fore as the speech inevitably veered in a political direction—immigration reform and support for Common Core. 

"Our immigration system is broken, and we need to fix it and shift it to an economic driver," Bush said. "Demography is destiny, and the aging population with fewer workers means lower growth, and a growing burden on young workers."

While toeing the Republican line that "the first thing we need to do is secure the border," Bush also spent time trumpeting the economic upside of a growing immigrant population, and of those currently here illegally. "There's no way they're going to be deported," he said.

Bush was his most focused, however, when he talked about raising educational standards. 

"As I look over the horizon, I see great social strains if we don't get education right," Bush said, while joking that his critics had left "tire marks" on his forehead on the issue. "This needs to be, not a federal program by any stretch of the imagination, but this should be a national calling. A great country like America needs to make sure that students will have the skills and the drive and the determination to rise up."  

He unleashed numerous slaps at President Barack Obama, bemoaning the slowdown in U.S. economic growth that followed the 2008 financial crisis. Bush, like Romney before him, couldn't help but envision a future in which a Republican president would put the country back on track. 

"In spite of the past few months, which have been good economic news, the new normal, if you talk to the smart people who decide these things, the new normal is one and a half to two percent growth, and the challenge with that is if we're to grow at that rate, kind of the European economic model, we're not going to be able to build the kind of capacity for people to pursue their dreams as they see fit," Bush said. "People's dreams will be limited and the demands on government will continue to grow."

As Bush continued with his line of thought, however, the silence in the room made it clear that this particular portion of the prospective stump speech might still use some polish. 

"To put it in perspective, if we were to grow at two percent more per year on top of what the new expectations are, compounded out for 10 years, we would create a Germany of additional economic activity in the 10th year," Bush pushed on. "No amount of exotic taxation, you know, proposed by our president or the progressives in this country comes close to the kind of revenue that government would get if we were to grow at three and a half or four percent per year, if we could, in that 10th year create an additional Germany." 

Moments later, however, the former Florida governor, who at once described himself as an "introvert" while making his case that he had what it took to become the country's next great leader, stuck to simpler rhetoric and scored some applause when he argued "Obamacare is clearly a job killer," and "the first thing we should do is approve the Keystone XL pipeline, for crying out loud, that's a no-brainer."

By the time he finished a question-and-answer session with NADA chairman Forrest McConnell, roughly a third of the room had already ducked out, but that could have had more to do with the fact that two floors below a convention hall was still bustling. More encouraging for Bush was the fact that his speech left some in the audience wanting more. 

"I liked what I heard, for the most part," Kinsinger said. 

"He's very passionate about education reform, and I like that," Baughman chimed in. "And he's very realistic about immigration. You're not going to make people leave the country." 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Friday's speech as a fundraiser.

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