The all-but-declared presidential candidate raised hundreds of thousands of dollars at a reception hosted mostly by lobbyists before bashing big government and congressional gridlock at a forum sponsored by the National Review Institute, the think tank arm of the conservative magazine.
Mr. Bush didn’t criticize any of his likely 2016 rivals serving their first terms on Capitol Hill – Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas or Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul – and he avoided commenting directly on Mr. Rubio’s tax reform plan or his amendment regarding the Iran nuclear deal. But Mr. Bush made it clear that he thinks his two terms as governor make him better prepared for the Oval Office.
“I’m not a United States senator, thank God,” he quipped. Asked if a governor or former governor was ready to be commander in chief, he drew applause, saying: “Let me think. Ronald Reagan.”
“You can be prepared from day one by being a governor,” added Mr. Bush, saying you can’t “hide behind the collective skirt and say I have some amendment about this. They have to lead. They have to make decisions.”
Mr. Bush also sought to set himself apart from the rest of the Republican field by defending his support for policies largely opposed by the conservative base: the Common Core national academic standards and legal status for undocumented workers. “You think I’m wrong on immigration and I think you’re wrong,” he said. “Maybe I’m stubborn.”
The former governor argued that economic growth will be stymied without an overhaul of immigration law. He also pointed to the political ramifications, saying that President Barack Obama flogs Republican immigration hardliners to push Hispanic voters away from the GOP.
“He uses this as a wedge issue and we always lose,” he said, adding that Mr. Obama “doesn’t want immigration reform” but benefits from delays and inaction. “We’re going to turn people into Republicans if we’re much more aspirational in our message, and our tone has to be more inclusive as well,” Mr. Bush said.
Democrats responded with a statement from Pablo Manriquez, hispanic media director for the Democratic National Committee. “Jeb Bush is the one playing politics with the future of these families by standing with Republicans who are obstructing commonsense policies that keep families together and refusing to pass comprehensive immigration reform,” he said.
On Common Core, Mr. Bush said instituting high standards and measuring whether children are meeting them is the best way to improve student achievement and compete in the global economy.
“Lowering expectations and eliminating accountability is going to doom a whole generation of people, and I for one won’t take it,” he said.
Mr. Bush called the unrest in Baltimore following the death of a black man in police custody “disturbing” but said, “It’s important to reflect on the fact that a young man died and that’s a tragedy for his family. This is not just a statistic. This is a person who died.”
He added a swipe at President Obama and the left, saying they put too much faith in the federal government to solve inner-city problems. The best remedy to poverty, he said, is a two-parent household and a better education system.
“At what point do you have to conclude that the top-down government poverty programs have failed?” he asked. “I think we need to be engaged in this debate as conservatives and say that there’s a bottom-up approach.”
Mr. Bush, who has been in Miami Beach and Puerto Rico in the last few days, plans to keep up a hectic travel schedule over the next three weeks, with planned stops in North Carolina, New York, Chicago, Nevada, Phoenix and Michigan.