It happened just as Jeb Bush was about to explain why he thinks conservatives need to stop being perceived as “anti-everything”: Attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference let it be known that, as part of their anti-everythingness, they are also anti-Bush.
A man wearing a tricorn hat and carrying a large “Don’t Tread On Me” flag stood up to stage a 30-person walkout of the former Florida governor’s speech. As the aspiring presidential candidate continued his Q&A with conservative commentator Sean Hannity, the Founding Father impersonator, William Temple, joined dozens of other demonstrators in the hallway, where chants of “USA!” disrupted the speech.
The modest size of the Friday-afternoon walkout was of little comfort to Bush, because those who remained behind were hardly more approving of his efforts to establish his conservative bona fides. From the moment he was introduced, boos from all corners of the room mixed with the polite applause. Attendees heckled Bush with shouts of “Common Core!” and “Open borders!” and “Amnesty!” – reminders of Bush’s education and immigration heresies. When Hannity asked Bush about his support for driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants and in-state tuition for immigrant children who aren’t citizens, the booing grew fierce.
“I know there’s disagreement here,” Bush allowed. “I kind of feel your pain. I was in Miami this morning. It was 70 degrees.”
It was considerably hotter than that in the ballroom at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, outside Washington. Bush, in beginning the soft rollout of his presidential campaign, said last year that he’d be willing to “lose the primary to win the general” – an acknowledgment that he may need to offend conservatives to preserve his viability. And offend them he has: Bush was part pariah, part pinata at CPAC this week.
Bush, preceded onstage by “Duck Dynasty’s” Phil Robertson, who gave a speech that rambled from genital herpes to Nazis, deserves big points for bravery – both for choosing to speak at CPAC and for standing up for his controversial views in his 20-minute tete-a-tete with Hannity. He stood by his support for in-state tuition, and when asked whether Common Core, the bete noire of conservatives opposed to national standards, is a “federal takeover” of education, Bush replied: “No, it’s not.” Heckled about “amnesty,” he fired back: “The simple fact is there is no plan to deport 11 million people. We should give the path to legal status where .?.?. they make a contribution to our society.”
Invited by Hannity to respond to those who make a disapproving “ooooh” at the mere mention of Bush’s name, the candidate described his record in Florida of cutting taxes and eliminating affirmative action. In fact, Bush did have a conservative record, but you wouldn’t know it from the treatment he received at CPAC.
On Friday morning, a few hours before Bush spoke, conservative talk-radio host Laura Ingraham fired up the conference with an extended anti-Jeb jeremiad. “The idea that we should be conducting any type of coronation in the Republican Party today because 50 rich families decide who they think would best represent their interests? No way, Jose,” she said.
A day earlier on the same stage, Ingraham had goaded New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a likely Bush rival for the nomination, into criticizing the former Florida governor. “If what happens is the elites in Washington who make backroom deals decide who the president is going to be, then he is definitely the front-runner,” Christie said.
Hannity did his best to puff up Bush with gentle questions (“Why do you love this country?”), and he vouched for Bush’s record as a tax-cutter and proponent of school vouchers. Hannity was almost apologetic in asking Bush the necessary tough questions, gently telling him that “every article I have read talks about you and a divide with the conservative movement.”
“I’ve read about it,” Bush deadpanned.
The two men chose to stand on the stage, awkwardly, as if having an impromptu hallway conversation in front of a couple thousand people. Bush’s attempt to affect a casual manner, by inserting a hand into a pants pocket, didn’t help. He shifted and fidgeted his way through the performance, at one point losing control of his syntax by suggesting that we “put ISIS around a noose.” Asked about securing the border, Bush replied with a jovial “Let’s do it, man!” And when Hannity said he had a final question, Bush blurted out, “Boxers!”
Bush’s discomfort is understandable: For a Republican presidential candidate, defying the conservative base, even in a small way, is tough business. But Bush is correct that he’ll likely have to lose some primaries if he’s going to preserve himself as a viable 2016 candidate, and losing the CPAC primary was a good first step.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.