When Jeb Bush walked in at a grassroots gathering Friday, the Tea Party walked out.
As the former Florida governor spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference near Washington, several dozen younger attendees left the room, led by a perennial Tea Party protester in revolutionary-era garb and a billowing Gadsden flag. Outside the hall, a chant of “No more Bushes” could be heard, while inside Bush folded his hands and stood uncomfortably.
The rowdy scene revealed deeper divides between hardline conservatives and supporters of more Establishment favorites such as Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. But as the frontrunner among donors, it was Bush who drew the ire of many activists in the audience.
To be fair, CPAC is not representative of the entire Republican Party. Attendees of the annual event are as likely to sport a denim vest, T-shirt or scruffy facial hair as they are to wear suits and loafers. One man wearing a Judas Priest sweatshirt over a maroon tie told a reporter that for him, CPAC is “just an excuse to go on a five-day bender.” The Republican National Convention, it ain’t.
Bush’s recent success with big donors was more a liability among the crowd here than an asset. “When you see the candidates supported by the status quo figures, you have to wonder,” said Bob Bodi, a Republican activist in Ohio, who wore a burgundy tie dotted with GOP elephants. “Conservatives aren’t willing to watch an election be bought.”
CPAC attendees also complained that Bush is milquetoast. “I’m not sure he has the fire in the belly to get the country back on track,” said Bill Rogers, a septuagenarian working through a glass of wine one evening after most had headed home. “He’s too soft on immigration.” Still others doubted his commitment to conservative values. “He doesn’t focus enough on first principles,” said Razi Lane, a first-year student at Hillsdale College in Michigan. He conjured James Madison and John Locke to criticize Bush. “Who represents natural law better? Ted Cruz.”
It wasn’t just local activists who expressed skepticism about a Bush candidacy. The talk-show host Laura Ingraham lambasted Bush on his money connections in a speech Friday morning. “The idea that we should conduct any kind of coronation,” Ingraham said, “because 50 rich families decide who will best decide their interests? No way, Jose.” Donald Trump, the real estate mogul and indefatigable presidential possible roused the crowd when he said Bush “is in favor of Common Core, he’s weak on immigration.”
But apart from the Sen. Ted Cruz late-night dorm room debaters and National Rifle Association activists at CPAC, Bush also had his supporters in the crowd. As in past years, presidential hopefuls’ allies bused in groups of supporters to vote for them in the straw poll and represent them in the crowd. Mitt Romney did it, Rand Paul’s allies do it, and so did Bush’s. Bush’s supporters like his tolerant stance on immigration, his willingness to compromise, qualities they say make him electable. “You have to give a little and you have to compromise and that’s something our country is lacking,” said Mallori Ware, a 19-year-old first-year at Liberty University and CPAC supporter of Bush. “We’re not going to elect someone to office who’s too conservative.”
The CPAC conservatives disagree, and a fight is brewing in the buzzing convention halls, one that will define the GOP for the next year. The night before Bush gave his tumultuous talk, Maggie Wright, a 69-year-old committed Cruz activist was adamant: she wouldn’t walk out in protest the next day. Out of politeness? No, not at raucous CPAC. Wright would stay to hear Bush’s speech, and “use it as ammo when Ted runs.”