NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland — Jeb Bush refused to water down his message for the Conservative Political Action Conference Friday, forcefully defending his support for immigration reform and Common Core education standards at a right-leaning event where previous speakers bashed his politics, his policies, and even his wife’s shopping habits.
“The simple fact is there is no plan to deport 11 million people,” he said during an onstage Q&A with Fox News host Sean Hannity. “We should give them a path to legal status where they work, where they don’t receive government benefits … where they learn English and where they make a contribution to our society.”
Bush defended his Florida record on the issue as well, saying he had no regrets about supporting drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants and backing more recent legislation granting in-state tuition for undocumented students, an issue Mitt Romney used to paint former Texas Gov. Rick Perry as insufficiently conservative in the 2012 GOP primaries.
PHOTO ESSAY: Behind the scenes at CPAC
The event, a showcase for Republican presidential prospects, tends to be dominated by hard-line social conservative and libertarian activists. About 50 attendees – almost all college-aged Rand Paul fans – marched out of the ballroom as Bush took the stage, following the lead of William Temple, a middle-aged man dressed as a revolutionary war soldier and carrying a Tea Party Gadsen flag. Outside, the band met television cameras and chanted, “no more Bushes, no more Clintons.”
Bush drew dueling boos and louder cheers at various points and told his hecklers that “I want to be your second choice.”
The former governor has has said he wants to distinguish himself from his presidential brother and father, but sounded a similar note to George W. Bush at times.
When was asked whether it was possible to cut taxes in a time of rising national debt, for example, Jeb Bush replied: “You can lower taxes and create more economic opportunity that will generate more revenue for government than any of the most exotic tax plans that Barack Obama has.” The 43rd president famously passed a massive tax cut, which helped turn a record surplus into significant deficits over his presidency.
Bush also hit a familiar hawkish tone on foreign policy, telling Hannity he wanted the option of using ground troops to confront the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and favored lending greater support to Syrian rebels opposed to the radical Islamist group.
He said he disagreed with the Obama administration’s emphasis on economic opportunity to combat Islamic terrorism in addition to military action, noting that recently identified British ISIS terrorist Mohammed Emwazi came from a wealthy family.
“This total misunderstanding of what this Islamic terrorist threat is is very dangerous, because it doesn’t allow you to have the right strategy to deal with this,” Bush said.
Delving into social issues, Bush played up his consistent conservatism. He rebutted a recent BuzzFeed report noting that Bush has hired a number of staff supportive of LGBT rights, saying: “I believe in traditional marriage.” Bush said he stood by his fight as governor to keep the late Terri Schiavo on life support against the wishes of her husband, telling the audience that “the most vulnerable in our society need to be protected.” After his own efforts failed, his brother’s unsuccessful attempt to intervene in the Schiavo case ended up becoming one of the most unpopular moves of his presidency.
Before his CPAC appearance on Friday, Bush had largely stuck to friendly venues more associated with the business wing of the GOP, where he’s most popular, than with the grassroots. The difference was clear throughout the conference.
Radio host Laura Ingraham, one of the event’s opening speakers on Friday, drew enthusiastic applause for an epic rant against Bush that criticized his support for a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants, for Common Core standards and mocked his wife Columba Bush’s jewelry bills.
“I think women could actually turn out in droves for Jeb Bush,” Ingraham said. “I mean what woman doesn’t like a man who gives her a blank check at Tiffany’s?”
Ingraham continued: “There’s another way of looking at this – we could dispense with this whole nomination process altogether. It’s kind of inconvenient having to run for president, we have to do this whole dog and pony show … why don’t we call it quits and Jeb and Hillary can run on the same ticket?”
Ingraham said Republicans should nominate “not a conservative who comes to CPAC to check a box, but a conservative who comes to CPAC because they are conservative.”
Bush’s name was also booed by the crowd, which was thick with Rand Paul supporters waiting to see the senator’s delayed speech, when Hannity mentioned him in an earlier segment and later when Donald Trump derided him a speech.
“I don’t see him winning, I don’t see there’s any way,” Trump said.
Sen. Marco Rubio who is also under fire from the right for co-sponsoring a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013, spoke as well. He has since renounced the bill.
Rubio took several questions from Hannity, who is also set to interview Bush later Friday, on the immigration topic and said he had made a mistake by not supporting border security legislation before looking at citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
“That was the strongest argument made against the bill and … it was proven to be true,” Rubio said, citing President Obama’s executive action to temporarily protect millions of immigrants from deportation. Rubio urged Republicans in Congress, who are debating whether to tie measures blocking the White House moves to a Department of Homeland Security funding bill and risk a shutdown at midnight, to stand firm against Obama.
“This is not a policy debate, this is a constitutional debate,” he said.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry told the crowd that any immigration debate “must begin with border security” and boasted how he told Obama, “if you will not secure the border between Texas and Mexico, Texas will.”
Paul, firing up the libertarian crowd that filled the theater for his speech, urged Republicans to heed his call for a less interventionist foreign policy – a tough sell at a time when many of the biggest applause lines of the event were for tougher action against Iran and more resources to combat militants with the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria abroad.
“As conservatives, we should not succumb to the notion that a government inept at home will somehow become successful abroad,” he said.