Paul Sancya/AP
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at an Economic Club of Detroit meeting on Wednesday. The Detroit event is the first in a series of stops that Mr. Bush's team is calling his 'Right to Rise' tour. That's also the name of the political-action committee he formed in December to allow him to explore a presidential run.

Why Detroit? The meaning of Jeb Bush’s first 2016 speech.

Jeb Bush pitched himself as a conservative reformer in a speech at the Detroit Economic Club, ahead of an expected presidential campaign. His message: Conservatives care about those 'on the edge of economic ruin.'

In his first major speech of the 2016 presidential cycle, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush presented himself Wednesday as a conservative reformer promising to boost opportunity for ordinary Americans.

That pitch, delivered to a roomful of businesspeople, came across as standard Republican fare, an updated version of the “compassionate conservative” message that his brother, George W. Bush, delivered at the start of his own presidential journey in 1999.

The American dream isn’t just a promise, it is a “moral promise,” the junior Mr. Bush said. The phrase “Washington, D.C., solution” was uttered as an epithet. Americans have a “right to rise,” Bush said over and over, riffing on the name of his new political-action committee, the Right to Rise PAC.

But the real import of Bush’s speech was that he delivered it in Detroit, one of the nation’s most troubled cities, and not in Iowa or New Hampshire, where the primaries and caucuses start a year from now. True, he spoke at the Detroit Economic Club, not a soup kitchen, but his message was still unmistakable: that he is reaching out to all Americans, including those “on the edge of economic ruin,” as he said.

“I know some in the media think conservatives don't care about the cities. But they are wrong,” Bush said. “So I say: Let’s go where our ideas can matter most, where the failures of liberal government are most obvious. Let’s deliver real conservative success."

Bush’s speech was, in a way, another Republican response to President Obama’s sunny State of the Union address last month.

“Far too many Americans live on the edge of economic ruin,” Bush said. “And many more feel like they’re stuck in place: working longer, and harder, even as they’re losing ground. Tens of millions of Americans no longer see a clear path to rise above their challenges.”

He also seemed to take a dig at 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney, a native of Michigan, and until last Friday, a possible competitor for the Republicans’ 2016 nomination.

“Something is holding them back,” Bush said of those struggling economically. “Not a lack of ambition. Not a lack of hope. Not because they’re lazy, or see themselves as victims.”

The reference to “victims” harked back to Mr. Romney’s caught-on-video private comment in 2012 about the “47 percent,” who “see themselves as victims.”

The Detroit setting also brings to mind the US government bailout of two of the Big Three Detroit automakers early in Mr. Obama’s tenure – a decision that Romney and other Republicans (including Jeb Bush) had criticized.

Speaking more broadly of Detroit’s problems, Bush on Wednesday called them “an echo of the troubles facing Washington, D.C.” The answer, he said, is to move away from government-based solutions.

“That’s why I launched the Right to Rise PAC,” he said. “So that someone would speak for people who don’t want to wait for the government to deliver prosperity. They want to earn it themselves.”

After his speech, Bush took some questions and addressed the advantages and disadvantages of being the son and brother of former presidents.

“On one level, I’ve had a front-row seat to watch history unfold,” he said. “It’s given me some perspectives that are helpful.”

“But on another level,” he added, “I know it’s an interesting challenge for me. If I have any degree of self-awareness, this would be the place where it might want to be applied.”

Polls have shown the Bush family’s presidential past is a net negative for Jeb Bush among Republican voters. 

Bush had this to say about both Presidents Bush: “I love my brother. I think he’s been a great president. It doesn’t bother me a bit to be proud of them and love them, but I know for a fact that if I’m going to be successful ... then I’m going to have to do it on my own.”

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