Jeb Bush Rallies Conservatives at Summit
Non-Candidate Shows Ability to Excite the Party

by Zachary A. Goldfarb
Special to The Washington Post
March 25, 2007

At a time when the conservative movement is looking bereft, humbled by midterm-election defeats and hungering for a presidential candidate to rally around, Jeb Bush delivered yesterday in Washington a resounding endorsement of conservative principles, bringing his audience repeatedly to its feet.

In his lunchtime remarks to the Conservative Summit, Bush struck every conservative chord, blaming Republicans’ defeat in November on the party’s abandonment of tenets including limited government and fiscal restraint.

“Don’t take offense personally if I get mad at Congress,” the Republican former Florida governor began. “It’s important for us to realize we lost, and there are significant reasons that happened, but it isn’t because conservatives were rejected. But it’s because we rejected the conservative philosophy in this country.”

He added, “If the promise of pork and more programs is the way Republicans think they’ll regain the majority, then they’ve got a problem.”

Bush’s speech prompted three standing ovations from the audience of hundreds at the National Review Institute’s conference at the JW Marriott Hotel, reflecting the widespread concern among conservatives that exorbitant government spending led to the loss of majorities in the House and Senate and concern about whether Republicans would again embrace the traditional principles.

To Ed Gillespie, a prominent lobbyist and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, Bush’s two terms in Tallahassee — where he developed a reputation as a tax-cutter and staunch spending hawk — exemplified conservative politics at its best, and what makes for a compelling presidential candidate.

“For those who are worried if you can put forward a vigorous conservative policy agenda in a state like Florida and still get elected and still be popular: Our keynote speaker left office with approval ratings above 60 percent,” Gillespie said.

“If he were former two-term governor Jeb Smith, he might be in Des Moines today,” Gillespie said, alluding to presidential hopefuls’ campaigning.

Bush says he will not run for president in 2008, however, and conservatives continue to look for a candidate to excite their interest.

“So far there’s definitely a lukewarm feeling about the field, but it’s still early, and conservatives want to see how these guys run. And it’s still possible that one or the other of the candidates will really inspire conservatives,” said Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review.

Two men eyeing the GOP’s conservative base as a platform for a presidential candidacy also gave speeches yesterday. In the morning, former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) addressed the conference, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was scheduled to speak last night. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, mentioned as another presidential possibility, is expected to speak this morning.

Gingrich, the architect of the 1994 “Republican revolution” that saw the GOP win control of Congress for the first time in 40 years, sharply criticized his party.

“You have a Republican Party that resents ideas,” he said. “We worked for 16 years to get a majority, which was thrown away.”

Gingrich, who received a warm reception, said he will not make a decision on running until much later this year.

Huckabee, meanwhile, might form an exploratory committee as soon as tomorrow. Romney, already exploring a bid, is criticized by some conservatives for the liberal social views he expressed in the 1990s.

With little disagreement at the conference about the prudence of the president’s strategy for Iraq, the war appeared not to figure into the thinking of conservatives as an issue that could further cost the GOP.

At a Friday night panel on the state of conservatism, commentator Laura Ingraham argued that Republicans — if they are to have any chance of winning in 2008 — must wake up to the fact that Democrats are embracing politicians such as Sen. James Webb (Va.), a gruff military veteran who delivered his party’s response to the State of the Union on Tuesday by attacking President Bush’s Iraq plan while offering a populist economic message.

“We have to be careful with conservatives not to remain in an echo chamber,” Ingraham said. “The party that comes off as the party that represents the American worker best is the party that wins in 2008.”