Breaking from traditional presidential politics orthodoxy, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush gave his first major speech as a potential 2016 candidate in Detroit, highlighting conservative principles in a city often ignored by many in his own party.
Bush presented economic growth ideas aimed at challenging not just many in his own party, but Democrats in a potential general election as well.
“If Americans are working harder than ever earning less than they once did, our government and our leaders should step up, offer a plan, fix what’s wrong – or they should step aside,” Bush told the Detroit Economic Club. “The recovery has been everywhere but in the family paychecks. The American Dream has become a mirage for far too many.”
Pivoting strongly to his message of a “right to rise,” Bush used the Detroit backdrop to face criticism of Republicans’ interest in large, metropolitan areas.
“I know some in the media think conservatives don’t care about the cities,” he said. “But they’re wrong. We believe that every American and in every community has a right to pursue happiness.”
The way to bring about that success, he said, would be through conservative principles, not taxes or welfare programs.
Aides say Bush is focusing on a general election run and won’t be bogged down by traditional campaign strategies for a primary – running so far to the right, he won’t be able to win the political center.
Reflecting on the GOP losses in 2008 and 2012, he endorsed the shorter primary process and fewer debates mandated by the Republican National Committee during the primary season, and alluded to why a general election strategy during the primaries could work this time around for his party.
“One – the desire to win. It’s lonely sticking your head through the White House gate and wondering what’s going on,” he said. “Eight years in exile is a long time. And so I think there will be some discipline to be able to recognize how important this race is for the future of the country.”
Taking on his party
Challenging many conservative Republicans, Bush argued the critical component for America to achieve 4% annual rate of economic growth – almost double that of current economic predictions – would require immigration reform.
Answering questions pre-submitted by the audience of about 400 club members and local leaders, he spoke about the “great frustration” of government failing to pass significant reform.
“This should be the lowest-hanging fruit, to be honest with you, because this is a huge opportunity. Immigration is not a problem,” he said. “We need young, dynamic people that can make an immediate contribution to our economy. We shouldn’t be fearful of this, we should say, ‘What an incredible opportunity.’”
The issue, now a lightning rod within the GOP, was front and center at the Iowa Freedom Summit last month, which Bush notably skipped. Sponsored by Citizens United and Rep. Steve King, the forum served as the first gathering of conservative activists to see multiple presidential candidates at one time.
King, a stalwart objector to immigration reform, disagrees with Bush on the issue.
Though other moderate Republicans who believe in immigration reform, like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, attended, Bush sent a stronger message by not appearing.
His first scheduled appearance in Iowa will be next month, at the Iowa Agriculture Summit. The event, billed as “bipartisan,” will feature other presidential candidates as well to speak about farms, biosciences, food and federal subsidies, according to the press release.
Family ties – not just from the top
Introduced to the stage with laughter as the father of newly elected Texas Land Commissioner George Prescott Bush, the governor smiled while talking about his son and the two Bushes people connect him to the most.
“I’m pretty proud also of 41 and 43 – I love them very much,” he said in a nod to his presidential father and brother. “I know that’s hard for the political world to accept, but it’s pretty easy for me to love them.”
George H.W. Bush, whom he refers to as “the greatest man alive” was also part of his formal remarks about a successful American business.
He spoke about two automotive engineers who left their jobs to start iRule, which now employs 21 people, including one of the founders’ fathers as CFO.
“Must be nice to hire your dad,” Bush joked. “I’ve thought about it, but he’s kind of retired.”
The only unscripted moment during his official remarks came while he tackled education – the issue for which he’s most known.
Listing a string of education accomplishments like working with leaders in minority communities to close the education gap, raising standards and graduation rates and eliminating grade promotion for children without the necessary skills to compete, Bush spoke with passion about his work during Florida governorship.
“It’s an economic development issue for sure, but it’s also I think the great moral issue of our time,” he said later.
Bush’s strong support of Common Core, in which states voluntarily subscribe to higher education standards, has already become a flashpoint for conservatives who prefer local school districts to set their own standards.
Potential debate opponents will assuredly watch him speak on education to prepare to argue against him. Bush will not back down on the issue.
Another strong statement came from a question about child vaccinations, which has dogged some Republicans this week over their support of the practice.
“Parents ought to make sure their children are vaccinated,” he said in a strong statement, though not addressing the government’s role in mandating them. “Parents have a responsibility to make sure their children are protected. Over and out.”
Jeb Bush, NFL commissioner?
Just a few days after the dramatic 2015 Super Bowl, Jeb revealed he could have been in NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s hot seat during this tumultuous season.
Visibly caught off guard, he confirmed that he was approached to lead the NFL in 2006.
“I was encouraged to consider it,” by some of the owners, he said. “It was nine months prior to … ending my tenure as governor. And to be honest with you that’s the greatest job in the world – being governor of a state. And I could have never imagined abandoning that job.”
Luckily for him, he stuck to his instincts to complete all eight years of his governorship, and did not pursue the post.
After a season plagued by the Ray Rice scandal and “Deflategate”, he seemed relieved.
“It’s not as easy of a job as it might have appeared in 2007,” he said.
Those are the same instincts he hopes will take him to the White House.
CNN’s Chief Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash contributed to this report.