Wall Street Journal
By Patrick O’Connor
February 26, 2015
Jeb Bush offered an aggressive defense Thursday night of his positions on immigration and education, suggesting that he is willing to lock horns with his conservative critics as he lays out a rationale for his presidential campaign.
In remarks to a small group of wealthy conservatives here Thursday night, Mr. Bush, a former Florida governor, rejected efforts to label him a centrist, saying his two terms as Florida governor provided ample evidence of his success in promoting a conservative agenda.
But he stuck by his support for two stances at odds with those of the Republican base. He backed a set of education standards known as Common Core and touted the economic benefits of increased immigration, restating his belief that immigrants in the country illegally should eventually be granted some form of legal status.
The timing of his remarks—on the eve of a highly anticipated appearance before conservative activists at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference near Washington—suggests Mr. Bush is willing to court confrontation with some of his party’s most committed activists.
“I’m not backing down from something that is a core belief,” he declared to rousing applause here at the Club for Growth’s annual retreat. “Are we all just supposed to cower because, at the moment, people are upset about something? No way, no how.”
The comments were a nod to Mr. Bush’s decree in December that, in order for Republicans to reclaim the White House, the next GOP presidential nominee must be willing to “lose the primary to win the general” election.
In a likely preview of the themes Mr. Bush will highlight Friday at CPAC, Mr. Bush touted his efforts to reduce the state government workforce by 13,000.
Mr. Bush told the crowd he lowered taxes every year as governor and drew loud applause when he said he vetoed $2 billion worth of line items in the budget during his eight years in office, rejecting projects and programs advocated by Republicans and Democrats alike.
“They called me Vito Corleone,” he joked,” referring to the movie “The Godfather.”
He also pointed to his efforts to rework Medicaid and end Affirmative Action in higher education and government procurement.
Throughout, Mr. Bush pitched himself as a conservative reformer with a proven record of enacting big changes.
“I ran as a conservative,” he said. “I said what I was going to do. I had a chance to do it, and trust me, I did.”
The Club for Growth is a leading free-market, antitax group that frequently criticizes congressional Republicans for protecting corporate interests and cutting budget deals with Democrats. In a question-and-answer session, Mr. Bush touched on two of the group’s top priorities when he said he would like to phase out the Export-Import Bank and mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac .
Throughout his 21-minute speech and subsequent question-and-answer session, Mr. Bush returned to a frequent theme: economic mobility.
Speaking to roughly 200 Club donors at the Breakers resort, the former Florida governor challenged Republicans to do a better job convincing poor and middle-class Americans that they would benefit from lower taxes, less regulation and a smaller government.
“Conservatives will win if we advance our cause to people that benefit from conservative principles,’’ he said. “And the people that will benefit from conservative principles are the ones that are stuck right now, not the ones that have already made it, the ones that are stuck, the middle that’s being squeezed and the poor that want to rise up.”
Mr. Bush drew regular applause and got a standing ovation at the end of his remarks. The crowd Friday at CPAC might not be as receptive. The event draws a broad mix of conservative activists, including a number of younger Republicans who identify more with tea-party favorites such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and libertarians who are rallying behind Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul .
The challenge for Mr. Bush, in sticking to his policy stances, will be to convince Republican primary voters that his record of conservative governance should trump their concerns about his support for Common Core and legal status for illegal immigrants.
On Thursday, Mr. Bush defended his support for Common Core by arguing that measurable standards are necessary to prevent children from suffering from a substandard education. He said states should determine their own standards and that he wants the federal government to stop enforcing these requirements. He also highlighted his efforts to boost school choice.
“We have a skills gap that is just extraordinary,” he said. “We have so politicized and dumbed-down our educational system that the net result is that we’re mediocre at best at a time when we need to be soaring.”
Mr. Bush couched the immigration debate in economic and demographic terms, presenting expanded immigration as a means to reverse the country’s ebbing birthrate and aging population.
The former Florida governor called for eliminating the existing quotas for certain countries and the creation of a guest-worker system that would allow the U.S. to meet its employment needs.
In an appeal tailored to conservative activists, Mr. Bush told the crowd of how he rediscovered the Constitution when his father, former President George H.W. Bush, asked him to serve on a board to honor the country’s founding document. He said imparting those values needs to be part of the immigrant experience in this country, ensuring that people who come here appreciate the country’s history and values.
“We need to get beyond this political fighting that creates a wedge issue that makes it harder for conservatives to win,” he said. “We need to be for the things that draw people towards our cause.”
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