NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush beseeched a gathering of conservatives in remarkably frank terms on Friday night to change the course of the Republican Party and to become a more diverse, welcoming and understanding party to minorities and low-income Americans.
Bush, speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference annual dinner, made the heart of his speech a call to the GOP to "learn from past mistakes." He made his case in some of the bluntest language he has used.
"All too often we’re associated with being 'anti' everything," Bush said. "Way too many people believe Republicans are anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-worker, and the list goes on and on and on. Many voters are simply unwilling to choose our candidates even though they share our core beliefs, because those voters feel unloved, unwanted and unwelcome in our party."
And Bush also threw cold water in the face of conservatives who espouse a strict up-by-the-bootstraps doctrine of individual responsibility, and who ascribe failure only to personal failure. Life, he said, is increasingly more difficult for those who aren't born with built-in advantages.
"It is not a validation of our conservative principles if we can only point to the increasingly rare individual who overcomes adversity and succeeds in America," Bush said. "Here’s reality: if you’re fortunate enough to count yourself among the privileged, much of the rest of the nation is drowning.
"In our country today, if you’re born poor, if your parents didn’t go to college, if you don’t know your father, if English isn’t spoken at home, then the odds are stacked against you. You are more likely to stay poor today than at any other time since World War II," he said.
Bush lamented that liberals have "channeled the anger and frustration that comes from this oppressive dynamic and used it as an opportunity to attack the very idea of success itself," and argued that conservatism holds out the best path upward for those without power or means.
"Conservative principles, and not liberal dogma, best reflect the ideals that made this nation great," he said.
But he faulted the GOP for not caring about large swaths of the country, and said if that attitude remains, the right will forfeit its ability to influence the nation.
"The face of the Republican Party needs to be the face of every American, and we need to be the party of inclusion and acceptance. It's our heritage and it's our future and we need to couch our efforts in those terms," he said.
The only way to attract these new faces to the party, Bush said, is through building real, ongoing relationships with others over a long period of time.
"As Republicans, we need to get re-acquainted with the notion that the relationships that really matter are not made through Twitter and social media. Real relationships take time to grow, and they begin with a genuine interest in the stories, dreams and challenges harbored within each of us," he said.
He took an implicit shot at 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's comments about the 47 percent he dismissed as wanting nothing but government benefits and handouts.
"Never again can the Republican Party simply write off entire segments of our society because we assume our principles have limited appeal. They have broad appeal," he said.
The ballroom crowd applauded at this, but Bush's demeanor throughout the speech was not demonstrative or electric, and the crowd's response was supportive, but low-key.
Bush is considering a presidential run in 2016. He's coming off an uneven first entry into the fray earlier this month, when his rollout of a book on immigration was dominated by news coverage about his back-and-forth position on immigration reform. In his book, written last year, he said he favored a path to residency, but not a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. He changed that position in interviews after it was pointed out that the current plan in the Senate includes citizenship.
Bush penned an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal that went live online Friday, in which he again voiced support for a path to citizenship. But while his speech Friday night used much of the content from his op-ed, he cut the lines about the path to citizenship and made only passing mention of immigration reform.
Bush also urged the Republican Party, as part of its self-reform, to "move beyond the divisive and extraneous issues that currently define the public debate." But he did not specify what he meant, even though it sounded like a reference to, among other things, the opposition of many conservatives to gay marriage. Earlier in the day, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) became one of the first prominent conservatives holding elected office to publicly support same-sex marriage.
Bush was clear, however, about what conservatives should view as their first priority.
"Our central mission as conservatives is to reignite social and economic mobility in this country," he said.