Sketching the broad outlines of a presidential campaign that is undeclared but well underway, Jeb Bush on Friday mixed familiar calls for lower taxes and less regulation with an admonishment to fellow Republicans to stay upbeat and offer hope as their central message in 2016.
“Just a lot of reasons to be angry or grumpy and negative and then react to the overreach,” the former Florida governor told a gathering of the nation’s auto dealers in San Francisco after delivering a long and scathing assessment of President Obama’s time in office, both domestically and on the world stage.
But, he went on, “we’re not going to win votes as Republicans unless we can lay out a hopeful, optimistic message that’s based in reality, that’s grounded in a set of policies that are real, that people believe can actually happen. Hope and a positive agenda wins out over anger and reaction every day of the week.”
Bush’s appearance before an overflow audience of several thousand was his first campaign-style stop since announcing last month via social media that he was actively exploring a run for the office held by his father and his older brother.
Seeming relaxed in the friendly setting of a strongly pro-business crowd, Bush spent half an hour offering his vision of a future America renewed by a lighter governing hand in Washington, a dramatic overhaul of the education system and a more muscular foreign policy.
He was unsparing in his criticism of Obama, suggesting at one point that the president’s desire to pull back from military engagement abroad had resulted in the renewed rise of terrorism and the threat of another Sept. 11-style attack on the United States.
“The implications of France,” Bush said of this month’s rampage in Paris by Islamic extremists, “should be … that it could happen here, and we need to keep our guard up. We can’t just keep pulling back.”
Bush, who has spent the last few weeks feverishly fundraising, made no mention of the large field of potential Republican rivals until asked in a subsequent question-and-answer session about his closed-door meeting Thursday in Utah with Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee. Romney unexpectedly announced this month a desire to pursue a third try for the White House in 2016.
The meeting, which was scheduled before Romney publicly expressed his interest, apparently did not dissuade either man from a race that could find the two political scions competing for support among the same base of establishment Republicans and business-minded donors.
Stating his respect and personal regard for his prospective rival, Bush said he and Romney -- the son of a Michigan governor who ran for president -- dwelled mostly on policy matters. “The awkward side of this,” Bush said, “about running and stuff, we put aside.”
Much of his message, delivered in a conversational style with only an occasional glance at notes, could have come from any of the roughly dozen or so Republicans eyeing a 2016 bid.
Bush’s call for greater accountability in education, for less tax money going to Washington and fewer government constraints on business have been standard GOP fare for decades. He joined the chorus in his party calling for construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline and condemning the Affordable Care Act, which he called a “monstrosity.”
Where he most notably broke with others was his discussion of immigration policy. While calling for tougher border enforcement, Bush coupled that with support for legal protection for the millions of Americans in the country illegally—a nonstarter for many in the GOP.
“There is no way that they’re going to be deported,” Bush said. “No one’s suggesting an organized effort to do that; the cost of that would be extraordinary. We need to find a way where if they pay fines, they learn English, they work and they get in the back of the line but they’ve come out of the shadows.”
While unstinting in his criticism of Obama, Bush also implicitly chided those in the party who have thrived on bashing the president, suggesting that opprobrium is no substitute for a substantive, forward-looking agenda.
At one point, consciously or not, he echoed one of the major themes of Obama's 2008 campaign when asked what major message Republicans could bring. “Hope,” Bush responded, adding that “it has to be grounded in a positive message, not a reactionary message."
He said the country was “starving” for leadership and pointedly invoked not just Republicans—like his father and Ronald Reagan—but Democrats John F. Kennedy, whom he praised for launching the crash program to put a man on the moon, and Lyndon B. Johnson, whom he hailed for pushing through expansive civil rights legislation.
“Too many people in Washington blame the dog eatin’ their homework over and over and over again,” Bush said in one of several jabs at the Beltway and its caustic political culture. Washington, he went on, is overpopulated with too many “academics and political hacks” with a “hard-core ideology.”
“They’re basically Maytag repairmen,” he said, offering no differentiation between Democrat and Republican. “Nothing gets done.”
Bush, who committed to the San Francisco event months before publicly stating his intentions to explore a White House bid, was one of three speakers paid to address the National Automobile Dealers Assn. convention.
Former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno and motivational speaker Beck Weathers were also compensated to appear this weekend, according to a spokesman for the organization, who declined to reveal how much each was paid.
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