When I went to the NADA Convention and Expo last week, the opening general session was something I didn’t want to miss, largely since Jeb Bush, brother of George W. Bush, son of George H.W. Bush, and a former governor of Florida, was giving the keynote address. Mainstream news outlets interpreted his speech in front of NADA as a signal that he was possibly planning a run for president. Consequently, I wanted to hear his (partial-politicking? semi-stump? kind of-campaign?) speech and the subjects it would concentrate on. However, I would have to sit through a lot more before I learned that Jeb Bush was “seriously considering the possibility of running.”
Usually the keynote speech during the NADA opening session is given by a top political figure. For politicians who might be considering a run at a higher office, the NADA convention isn’t a bad place to further political goals (like running for President of the United States) considering that a) car dealers can probably contribute big bucks to a campaign, and b) dealers tend to be active in their community and local chambers of commerce, which can again help candidates raise more money.
For example, the 2012 keynote was given by George W. Bush while the 2013 speech was given by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Last year’s keynote was given by Hillary Clinton which publicly (and predictably) didn’t go over well, showing the political orientation of many NADA members. Clinton’s speech at NADA was thought by political pundits and the media to bolster a potential presidential candidacy.
As much as NADA attendees wanted Jeb Bush to announce his presidential candidacy, it was highly unlikely that would be the case. After all, he was in San Francisco, one of the most liberal places in the country, so he probably wouldn’t have been greeted with cheers once he walked out of the convention center. Outside the venue, his supporters would’ve probably been outnumbered 4 to 1. (Make that 5 to 1 if Berkeley residents had gotten wind of the announcement and crossed the Bay Bridge.)
Before the session began, the room filled up completely. Due to the crowd and no designated press area, I ended up being wedged between a couple of insurance vendors on my left and what was a very successful dealer (assuming the gold Patek Philippe perpetual calendar on his wrist wasn’t fake, and I’m fairly sure it wasn’t) on my right. It was apparent that this was an affluent and influential audience. This wasn’t going to be my kind of crowd.
The beginning of the opening session almost reminded me of a political rally. Have a band (in this case a Journey tribute band) play some loud music while the room was filling up? Check. A singing of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” to quiet the crowd. Check. A person to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner”? Check. Is the person part of the military? Check.
After that came the announcement of a $150,000 donation to a local food bank and the introduction of the 2014 NADA officers. Next came the motivational speech from the NADA chairman Forrest McConnell, with the theme being “Who’s Your Biggest Competitor?” It was about two car dealers who raised themselves up by the bootstraps with one becoming the largest Honda dealer in the country and the other becoming the largest Toyota dealer in the country. And the answer: yourself.
Then came the nominees for the TIME Magazine Dealer of the Year award, given for contributing to charitable causes. Plenty of time was spent on each nominee, the dealership they ran, and the organizations they made their contributions to, from the local hospitals to Boys & Girls Club of America. There were 55 dealers nominated for the award, which meant this section of the event took some time. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the awards presentation lasted longer than the amount of Jeb Bush was on stage. However, it did drive home the point that dealers were highly influential and were helpful to their communities.
When Jeb Bush gave his speech, the parts that encompassed car dealers’ interests involved the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and its regulations on dealer financing. Bush felt that the CFPB was making rules without Congress being involved and voiced support for the dealers. All of the comments about the CFPB were greeted with plenty of applause. He moreover noted the impact of the Affordable Care Act, described as a “job-killer.”
His speech also covered working on the immigration policy, reforming the entitlement system, simplifying the corporate tax code, reforming the education system with a spotlight on decreasing the power of teachers’ unions. All of these statements on education, immigration, the tax code, and the entitlement system were greeted with applause, and he received a standing ovation at the end of his speech. Held in the middle of San Francisco.
For the Q+A session following the speech, only the NADA chairman could ask questions. Fortunately, the thing asked was “What car do you drive?” It turned out Bush had just bought a Ford Fusion and had yet to schedule a tutorial with the dealer about using all the car’s features. (He’s just like the rest of us, folks.) Furthermore, Bush told an anecdote about how it was reporters on their way to the Detroit Auto Show who saw him headed for a flight to Utah, which alerted the media to his meeting with Mitt Romney.
A large portion of the Q+A dealt with the economy. In his answers, Bush discussed reforming the tax code, stating that he believed lowering taxes upfront would be much better, and simplifying the tax regulations would make large corporations pay their taxes. He also spoke about how the middle class was being squeezed and how he would focus on achieving higher sustained economic growth. As the issues of taxes, economic growth, and government regulations were undoubtedly of concern to the crowd, many of Bush’s statements were received with plenty of acclaim.
By the end of the event, I understood that the NADA keynote was less about the individual giving it, but about showing of NADA’s influence beyond the auto industry. It was demonstrated through the TIME Dealer of the Year award and the focus on giving to the community. It was demonstrated through the fact that Jeb Bush spoke at the event. It was demonstrated at the end of the session when NADA chairman McConnell referenced what NADA was capable of, highlighting its work in fighting government regulations and manufacturers’ unreasonable demands.
The NADA opening general session was not about Jeb Bush and his presidential run, as most media outlets focused on. It was about exhibiting the attitudes and mindset of a prominent and relatively well-off section of the population. And most importantly, the event presented the influence that NADA and its members have on people and businesses across the country.
Satish Kondapavulur is a writer for Clunkerture, where about a fifth of the articles are about old cars and where his one-time LeMons racing dreams came to an end, once he realized it was impossible to run a Ferrari Mondial. He’s probably the only person in the world who’s driven both a Bentley Continental GT and Chrysler 200 around Laguna Seca.