NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – Jeb Bush’s CPAC experience was a success because of what did not happen as much as for what did.
Bush emerged from the wings onto the stage Friday afternoon in what was, without question, the highest moment of drama at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. The massive ballroom here was packed to capacity and filled with a nervous energy. The press wondered if threatened protests or walkouts would materialize, and the crowd had waited for 20 extra minutes for Bush to appear, sitting through two long-winded, meandering and sometimes bizarre speeches before Bush came on stage.
When Bush finally did stride on stage, looking strikingly tall next to Fox News personality Sean Hannity, the large contingent of Bush supporters exploded in applause, overwhelming but not drowning out the smattering of boos around the room. A handful of attention-seekers raised a ruckus in the hallway outside the ballroom, but no protests or mass walkouts materialized.
And then Bush dove into a nearly 30-minute question and answer session with Hannity, standing and not sitting. Hannity asked Bush some softball questions but also spent a large amount of time asking Bush about complaints that conservatives have made about the former Florida governor. This was to Bush’s liking — his own aides had talked in recent days of wanting to confront criticisms head-on about immigration and Common Core.
At one point, as Hannity talked about the need to secure the border, a glimpse of Bush’s older brother, former President George W. Bush, emerged in his body language as he leaned forward toward Hannity and stuck out his chin every so slightly.
“Let’s do it. Let’s do it, man,” Bush said. “Let’s control the border. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s what a great nation has to do.”
But then Bush quickly added a mention of the need to continue to have immigrants come to the country. “This nation needs to start growing at a far faster rate than we’re growing today,” he said, in a reference to the demographic shifts that threaten America’s entitlement programs, as the number of payees into Social Security and Medicare become outnumbered by the growing number of baby boomers who are retiring.
Just as there were no meaningful protests, there were no embarrassing moments in the back and forth: another success for Bush. He was heavy on policy talk and did not back away from any of his positions, but also aggressively asserted that he is a “practicing, reform-minded conservative” whose track record as governor for two terms is firmly conservative.
“I’ve actually done it,” Bush said.
Most important, Bush walked off the stage having done something that Mitt Romney did not do in 2012 when he spoke to this same gathering. Bush exited without having gift-wrapped any material for Democrats to attack him with if he is the party’s nominee in a general election. Three years ago it was here that Romney uttered his infamous line that he was “severely conservative,” in an ill-fated attempt to convince the Republican base that he was one of them.
Bush made his argument, and made a positive impression, but did not say anything in an attempt to win over the grassroots that could alienate moderates or independents down the road. This is in line with his own statement that a winning strategy in the Republican primary election is to “lose the primary to win the general.”
Bush was unapologetic about his belief that immigrants in the country illegally should be given a path to citizenship.
“The simple fact is there is no plan to deport 11 million people. We should give them a path to legal status,” Bush said. As he recited the conditions for this path to citizenship, his voice was drowned out by the cheers of his supporters.
It was this very issue of immigration in 2012 that drove Romney to alienate Latino voters by talking of the need to make life so miserable for illegal immigrants that they would “self-deport.” He lost 73 percent of the Hispanic vote, compared with 56 percent who voted against Bush in 2004, which helped cost Romney the general election.