March 20, 2015


The Education of Jeb Bush : How did a conservative--and effective--governor arouse the suspicion of the right? (ANDREW FERGUSON, 3/30/15, Weekly Standard)

But it's the '94 campaign for Florida governor that works as the hinge in Jeb Bush's political life, a shift whose effects are felt even now, as he introduces himself to voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. Already in 1994 he had the reputation of a committed conservative with a libertarian severity: a board member of the Heritage Foundation and reader of intellectual journals like Policy Review and the American Spectator, an aspiring egghead eager to master the minutiae of government policy in hopes of undoing or reversing the ill effects of government policy. Far more ideological than either his brother or his father, he was, said the political consultant Mike Murphy, "the Bush brother with balls." 

"All of us on the campaign, he called us gladiators or head-bangers," says Tom Feeney, Bush's running mate in '94--also the Christian Coalition's Legislator of the Year, dubbed the "David Duke of Florida" by Democrats. Bush vowed to send federal welfare dollars back to Washington and pledged to eliminate not only the state department of commerce but also the department of education--indeed, not just to eliminate them, but "blow them up." 

You never knew when those conservative cojones would swing into view. At a public forum he was asked what he "was prepared to do" for black Floridians by a questioner evidently expecting a bundle of special programs swaddled in gauzy rhetoric. His terse answer, "probably nothing," became instantly infamous, though from a conservative point of view, which in theory disavows the parsing of the population by race, it was easily defensible. (Asked not long ago about his greatest regret in politics, Bush mentioned his "probably nothing" answer.)

Less famously he said women on welfare "should be able to get their life together and find a husband," though he complained that his comments were taken out of context. He wrote an op-ed about gay rights, arguing that sodomy should not be raised to a legal category, the same as race or religion. One salvo apparently backfired: In the final days of a close campaign, he accused the incumbent governor, Lawton Chiles, of stalling the execution of a convicted child murderer to appease left-wing voters--an accusation that was itself a transparent appeal to right-wing voters. Pundits expected Bush to win, but he came up short by 64,000 votes. On the same day, his older brother won an upset victory over a sitting governor in Texas. 

"That was a big year for Republicans, you'll remember," Bush says from the front seat as the minivan pulls out of the fairgrounds. We have at last shaken the autograph hounds. "I think two Republicans lost--Mitt Romney to Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts and me to Lawton Chiles." 

Bush's friends from those days say the unexpected loss was painful and disheartening, and probably the cause for as much soul-searching as a Bush can admit to. He said publicly that the campaign's constant travel and absences from home had taken a toll on his family life. He founded a think tank, the Foundation for Florida's Future, to serve as a political base for another run for governor and also as a warehouse for policy proposals from the conservative movement nationwide. With the director of the Miami Urban League he raised money to found a charter school in the African-American suburb of Liberty City, and once it was established he spent several hours a week there, beyond the range of reporters and cameramen. He converted to Catholicism and to this day carries a rosary in his coat pocket. And he decided to change his whole approach to politics.

"The big lesson of '94," he calls it. 

"I was all about ideas," he says now. "And we had a whole slew of white papers--some very cool ideas, I might add. But people aren't going to listen to just ideas." 

When Chiles attacked him as a heartless ideologue, he says, voters had no real evidence to think otherwise. "The thing I didn't do was show my heart. I didn't show who I was," he says. "In politics you put a human context around things, and you show your heart. The ideology that I believe, the belief in limited government, that didn't change. But I learned a lot. And the tone of my language is reflected in what I learned."

To prepare himself for another run for governor, he gave himself a crash course in the intersection of state government and ordinary citizens. "What I did was, I wandered," he says. "Basically that's what I did. I quit my job and just went around. I raised money [for a second gubernatorial campaign]. I raised a ton of money, but that was at night."

Daytime he visited courtrooms unannounced. "I sat and watched judges that were supervising the child welfare system. I'd spend three hours at a time watching them go through case after case--abandoned children, neglected kids, abused kids. The system was so screwed up.

"I visited 250 schools." He pauses to let the number sink in. "You don't think that's a lot of schools, try it sometime. That's like a three-schools-a-day kinda deal. Sometimes I'd just walk in unannounced. I'd say, I'm running for governor and I just want to learn from what you're doing."

At one luncheon meeting he was confronted by a woman who said the special education system had failed her disabled daughter. "You don't know what it's like," she told him.

"Okay," Bush replied, according to contemporary accounts. "You've got four days. Teach me what it's like." 

Over the next week, he says, "she showed me programs that work and programs that don't. We went to group homes, independent living places." After his election as governor, the mother, Berthy De La Rosa-Aponte, became an adviser to the governor's root-and-branch overhaul of the special education system. She's now a well-known authority in state and federal disability programs. And a Republican.

"He became a better politician," says Mac Stipanovich, who managed his first unsuccessful campaign. "He learned how to talk to people about things they care about." Stipanovich contrasts the '94 version of candidate Jeb with his brother W., a far more natural politician. 

"You'd ask George W. Bush, 'What's your position on crime?' And he'd say, 'I'm against it.' And you'd say, uh, could you be more specific? And he'd say, 'Okay. I'm really against it.' You'd ask Jeb about crime and he would talk your ear off for an hour about sentencing guidelines, incarceration rates, everything.

"He believed 10 things very firmly in '94. In '98 he still believed in the same 10 things, but he learned that if a particular group only agrees with you on 5, only talk about the 5."

The softened and simplified rhetoric--this language of the heart, as Bush says--proved maddening for his opponent, Chiles's lieutenant governor Buddy MacKay. As his running mate Bush chose the state commissioner of education, the head of a department he said four years earlier he wanted to blow up. At a candidates' debate at an inner-city church two weeks before Election Day, MacKay became so vexed at Bush's reasonableness that he cried out: "If he wants to be a Democrat, then let's have the conversion right here in church!"

In fact, his platform, still festooned with white papers, changed scarcely at all between '94 and '98. When Bush won handily, he could rightly claim a mandate for an ambitious agenda: tort reform, tax cuts, limits on abortion, school choice, and much else. Feeney, his first-time running mate, says: "He'd realized that if you're going to grow the party you're going to have to bring non-hardcore nonpartisans along with you, on reforms they might not be comfortable with otherwise. It wasn't just winning an election. It was laying the groundwork for massive conservative reform."

The astonishing achievements of Bush's eight years in office will soon, he hopes, be familiar to primary voters. Even Republican non-Floridians might have missed them if they weren't paying attention. 

"Jeb Bush is as conservative as any governor in America, and much more so than most," wrote the journalist Tucker Carlson in 1999. "But you'd never know it unless you listened carefully, or took a close look at the bills he supports. If Bush's legislation is radical, his tone is all accommodation and empathy."

The Bush record in Florida is like a wish list conjured from right-wing daydreams. With Republican majorities in both houses of the state legislature, "Bush made Florida into a laboratory of conservative governance," writes Matthew T. Corrigan in Conservative Hurricane: How Jeb Bush Remade Florida, destined for now to be the definitive account of Bush's eight years in Tallahassee. 

Corrigan is a political science professor at the University of North Florida and shows every indication of having the political leanings common to his trade. He records with mounting horror the list of Bush's successes. While Florida's population grew by two million, the state government's workforce declined by 13,000--the result of sweeping privatization of everything from state park maintenance to personnel management. At least one kind of state tax or another was cut every year he was in office, for a total of $19 billion. He left office with a $3 billion surplus in the state treasury. For the first time in history the state earned a AAA bond rating.

It helped that in his first two years his state, like many others in the blissful '90s, was awash in cash, pouring in from the economic boom and from billion-dollar settlements with tobacco companies. An Associated Press headline from 1999 summarized the lucky position he found himself in: "Bush budget has it all: spending increases, tax cuts." Spending increases were of a particular kind: More money was poured into care for seniors, for instance, but only to fund vouchers and other mechanisms that transferred control of their care from state institutions to family members or the seniors themselves. Otherwise the fiscal discipline continued through flush times and bad, often against the opposition of some powerful Republican legislators, who saw no reason why new revenue had to be returned to the taxpayers. One bitter Republican leader called Bush and his staff "Shiite Republicans."

The epithet was directed as well at Bush's nonfiscal agenda. After a mad rush in the first year, he and the legislature ran out of ways to liberalize gun laws; the Stand Your Ground law implicated in the Trayvon Martin shooting was a Bush-era innovation. Under Bush, Florida even exempted gun shops from state rules regulating chemical runoff into the water table, a legislative two-fer beyond the imagination of the most fevered deregulating gun nut. 

Bush's attempts to limit abortion were unprecedented in Florida and most other states too. Many of the laws were overturned by hostile state judges, but even so, only a few years into the Bush era, the Florida legislature had banned partial-birth abortion, imposed parental notification requirements on minors seeking abortions, subsidized antiabortion pregnancy centers, funded pro-life billboards along state highways, and even offered a "Choose Life" license plate. Bush's rhetoric in pursuing his social agenda was typically rounded. He framed parental notification, for instance, not as a means to reduce abortions but an opportunity for parents "to love and console." His stubborn fight for the right to life of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged woman whose husband obtained a court order to hasten her death by denying her food and water, drew international attention, much of it horrified.

"I just think it's humorous," Tom Feeney says now, when reminded that lots of reporters and Republicans are calling Bush a moderate. "It's pure revisionism for anyone to ignore the fact that he was the most conservative governor in the country."

When he left office, in 2007, Bush's approval rating in some polls stood above 60 percent, having rarely fallen below 50 percent in the preceding eight years. Even veteran Bush watchers like Peter Brown, a former writer for the Orlando Sentinel and now assistant director of polls for Quinnipiac University, express surprise.

"After eight years, with that record?" Brown says. "But people liked him. They knew he was a conservative guy and he acted on what he believed, but he was like Reagan: He wasn't a hater. People liked it that he didn't pick on people." [...]

When Bush settles back in his seat, there's an objection from a kibitzer in the back: What does all this have to do with the federal government? These are all state responsibilities. After all, presidents can't do what governors do .  .  .

He wheels around again. 

"Why not?" 

Well .  .  .

"I mean, why not? I've never understood that. Why can't presidents reform things? It seems to me there's a lot of low-hanging fruit there: procurement policies, career civil service reform, job training programs, our public assistance programs--they're all mired in the old way of doing things. Why can't a president change things?"

Eventually he says: "You can be a conservative and still solve problems for people."

Posted by at March 20, 2015 7:09 PM

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