VERO BEACH — Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush avoided the topic of a presidential run in 2016 when he spoke for more than an hour Saturday in front of an audience of about 800 people at The Emerson Center.
The crowd laughed when Bush was asked whom he thinks the Republican candidates may be for the next election. Bush, who has been cited as a potential candidate, said there are several good Republican choices out there.
"It's a little early in the game to know that," he said. "How about that for a dodge?"
Bush, a "Floridian by choice, Texan by birth," began his speech by giving an update about his father, former President George H.W. Bush, who is expected to be released from the hospital on Monday. The elder Bush was hospitalized in Houston on Nov. 23 for treatment of a bronchitis-related cough.
Audience members laughed when Bush joked his father won't be pampered anymore now that the "chief medical officer" of his life will be former First Lady Barbara Bush.
Bush, whose brother, George W. Bush, is a former president and Texas governor, mentioned his son, George P., is getting into "the so-called family business" of politics by running for statewide office in Texas.
"I don't know what the heck got into him," he said.
Now, Bush said, he's pursuing the "second half" of his life to speak on a different level. He talked about the future of America, politics and the Republican Party.
"Politics are going to be more intense, more expensive and more messy," he said. "Our beloved country is deeply divided. We don't have a clear choice."
Candidates spent a lot of money during the past elections, but the political landscape stayed relatively the same, Bush said. The country no longer is the most socially- and economically-mobile country in the world, he said.
"This is a changing country," he said, "and it requires, I think, an attitude change so that we can break the gridlock and regain our footing."
The country needs to find issues where they agree and create a bipartisan path toward high sustained economic growth to generate more revenue, Bush said. One suggestion was coming up with "a patriotic energy policy" based on North American resources, ingenuity and technology, he said.
An idea is to take two existing technologies — hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling — and use them together, he said. Hydraulic fracturing, better known as hydrofracking or fracking, is a drilling method in which large amounts of sand, water and chemicals are injected deep underground at high pressures.
"This is the coolest dang thing that's ever happened in the last 10 years of our country," he said.
It would allow the country to re-industrialize itself, have a more cost efficient source of energy, have a competitive advantage in the world, lessen greenhouse gas emissions, save consumers billions of dollars in utility bills, create high-tech jobs, and limit its military footprint in the rest of the world, Bush said.
"We cannot be the world's policemen (for) ever and ever and ever," he said, "and energy's not the only reason why we are, but it is a significant reason, and we should be honest about that."
Energy policy shouldn't be a partisan or ideological issue, Bush said. He talked about how the government should create incentives for the use of natural gas in transportation.
"I hope and pray that we get back to a place, that wasn't that long ago, where we did find common ground on the things we don't even argue about anymore, so that we can take advantage of this huge, huge opportunity," he said.
Another suggestion was embracing "immigration as an economic strategy rather than a political wedge issue," Bush said. He said he saw people cringe when he brought up the subject of immigration because of the current mindset.
The country should invest in all kinds of enforcement and make sure it's easier to come to the country legally than illegally, Bush said. Family-based immigration should be narrowed because the country is too permissive, he said.
For people already in the country illegally, there should be a path to legal status where they pay a fine and learn English, he said.
Regardless, everything requires public leadership and someone who puts the country and the greater good first, Bush said.
"We need leaders that are all in, fully engaged, that have determination, have humility, find the common ground, share the credit — do all the things that in your own personal life you've seen," he said.
Bush said he continues to pray for a spark for that to happen as it has in the country's past.
"This still is the greatest country on the face of the Earth," he said. "We just have to start acting like it again."
For now, Bush is in business with his son, Jeb Jr., at Jeb Bush and Associates, which works
mostly with technology-oriented companies, he said. Bush also has an education reform foundation that advocates for broad-based reform in schools K-12 across the country and is focused on digital learning.
Between his 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. talks, Bush attended a reception with guests.
"It is a joy to be here in Vero Beach," he said. "I have a confession to make — I love Florida."