Jeb Bush touted his conservative credentials Friday before a skeptical audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference, at one point reiterating his opposition to same-sex marriage.
During a nearly 30-minute question and answer session conducted by Fox News and radio talk show host Sean Hannity, Bush was asked to respond to a recent report by McKay Coppins of BuzzFeed News that his views on same-sex marriage are evolving.
“No, I believe in traditional marriage,” the former governor of Florida said. Bush’s brief statement on marriage equality came when the majority of his remarks focused on his views on immigration reform and Common Core, which many conservatives have criticized for being too moderate.
The report published Thursday by BuzzFeed News noted Bush is shaping up to be 2016’s gay-friendly Republican. When Bush officially launches his presidential campaign later this year, he is expected to be surrounded by a campaign staff that consists of a number of pro-gay Republicans, including a campaign manager, chief strategist and a communications director who is openly gay. (A Bush spokesperson said that should he run for president, his campaign will be based on his views and agenda.)
“Three Republican supporters who have recently spoken with Bush as he’s blitzed the GOP fundraising circuit told BuzzFeed News they came away with the impression that on the question of marriage equality, he was supportive at best and agnostic at worst,” Coppins wrote.
Indeed, Bush has appeared to soften his tone on whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, particularly after marriage equality arrived in Florida last month.
In a statement released the same day same-sex marriages began in Florida, Bush made no mention of his personal opposition to same-sex marriage and instead expressed a sympathetic understanding of not just those who believe marriage should be between a man and a woman, but of same-sex couples seeking equality.
“We live in a democracy, and regardless of our disagreements, we have to respect the rule of law,” Bush said. “I hope that we can show respect for the good people on all sides of the gay and lesbian marriage issue — including couples making lifetime commitments to each other who are seeking greater legal protections and those of us who believe marriage is a sacrament and want to safeguard religious liberty.”
But whether Bush endorses same-sex marriage anytime soon seems unlikely, particularly as he tries to court conservatives who view the son and brother of two former presidents as the establishment candidate. His brief statement Friday in support of “traditional marriage” appeared to confirm that, as did a meeting he held the same day with Family Research Council President Tony Perkins.
Nevertheless, during an event after his CPAC appearance with supporters of his Right to Rise PAC, Bush said a 2016 presidential campaign must focus on outreach to those that often would not consider voting for the Republican ticket.
“The campaign needs to be about hopeful, optimistic ideas that will allow us to rise up again,” he told a largely young crowd, many of whom swarmed Bush for selfies after his remarks. “And a campaign should be about getting to 50, not trying to tear down the differences between the 35 or 40. Last time I checked in a two-person race you gotta get to 50. And that means we need to not just unite a conservative party, we also need to reach out to people that haven’t been asked in awhile: Young people, Hispanics, African-Americans, those who want to rise up like the rest of us. All of us want to have a chance to rise up.”
When Bush last appeared at CPAC, in 2013, he chided the Republican Party for not being more welcoming. “Way too many people believe Republicans are anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-worker,” Bush said at the time. “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.”
Bush reiterated Friday that the conservative movement must start being for things, not against. But even as many in the GOP have gone silent on their opposition or indifference to marriage equality (not even former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum mentioned same-sex marriage during his Friday speech at CPAC), skirting the issue is unlikely to garner much support from the LGBT community, particularly if Hillary Clinton leads the Democratic ticket.
“At the end of the day, it isn’t rhetoric or hiring practices that count, it’s what a candidates stands for,” said Fred Sainz, vice president of the Human Rights Campaign, in a statement. “A candidate who is truly committed to LGBT equality will support marriage equality and support protecting all LGBT Americans from discrimination. While the tone of Jeb Bush’s language and word choice may have changed, he hasn’t yet articulated different policies from when he opposed marriage equality and opposed discrimination protections as governor. There are more questions than answers on where Bush stands today.”