His grandfather Prescott Bush was a U.S. senator, and his father and brother were presidents. Yet Jeb Bush doesn't believe in political dynasties, and seems perfectly willing to let his family's legacy of serving in high office in Washington pass him by.
It's "possible," he says, that he'll never run again — for anything. That includes the presidency in 2012. "I'm totally comfortable with what I'm doing and how I'm going about it. I hope I can find a role to play that doesn't include running for office to make a contribution."
Bush, who turned 56 this month, stepped down in 2007 after eight years as governor of Florida. Now he's working in real estate, consulting, giving paid speeches, promoting education reform, and offering advice to the Republican Party. Even the U.S. Senate seat that Republican Mel Martinez will vacate next year didn't entice him. That, he says, would require a 71/2- year commitment — a year and a half of campaigning and six years in office. He sounds weary merely discussing another campaign.
But Bush becomes animated when talking about ideas and policy innovations — he's an unorthodox Republican who latches on to reform ideas wherever he finds them. He's a fan of the school system in Sweden (more on this below). Currently he's reading Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns — on his Kindle electronic reader. And he's convinced Republicans should make a heroic effort to govern California because it's "a center of innovation and a place that looks like the changing demographics of our country, similar to Florida."
But the first question I ask Bush is about his life and work after declining to seek a Senate seat. He's not second-guessing his decision. He's relaxed, dressed Miami-style in slacks, a tattersall shirt and no tie. When Bush left the governor's mansion in Tallahassee, he worked out of an office in his Coral Gables condo. Six months later, he moved to the Four Seasons office complex five miles away on the fringe of downtown Miami. It is not plush, but modest and functional with a modern print on the wall and a few dozen books — on policy, politics, religion — on two shelves.
Nevertheless, his current lack of interest in elective office surely is not the last word on Bush's political career. He's popular with both moderate and conservative Republicans, and more easy-going and genial than his brother George. Bush was a successful governor (1999-2007) of the fourth most populous state. His tenure was memorable because of his intense focus on reform of education, government, the budget process, civil service, health care, procurement and race-based programs. He also cut taxes in a state with no income tax.
What comes through when Bush is asked about education is how radical his views are. He would toss out the traditional K-to-12 scheme in favor of a credit system, like colleges have.
"It's not based on seat time," he says. "It's whether you accomplished the task. Now we're like GM in its heyday of mass production. We don't have a flourishing education system that's customized. There's a whole world out there that didn't exist 10 years ago, which is online learning. We have the ability today to customize learning so we don't cast young people aside."
This is where Sweden comes in. "The idea that somehow Sweden would be the land of innovation, where private involvement in what was considered a government activity, is quite shocking to us Americans," Bush says.
"But they're way ahead of us. They have a totally voucherized system. The kids come from Baghdad, Somalia — this is in the tougher part of Stockholm — and they're learning three languages by the time they finish. … There's no reason we can't have that except we're stuck in the old way."
So are Republicans, Bush believes. But with a few adjustments, the GOP can become a modern reform party. "I don't think there's anything that holds us back," he says. "I think we're actually well positioned to do exactly that."
Bush would stand the party on its head by de-emphasizing Washington and mounting "a real effort to play offense outside of Washington in advancing a reform agenda. I think a respectful, policy-oriented opposition in Washington will be quite effective." But the states are where "being able to change things is easier to do."
This approach "worked in the early '90s," Bush says. "We had some fantastic governors who were my role models." He mentions his brother when he led Texas, John Engler of Michigan and Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin. "We had an all-star team." He likes the current crop of Republican governors, including Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Haley Barbour of Mississippi.
"Beyond the ideas and all of that," Bush says the GOP must be a national party. That means "we need to be competitive in California," where the "burden of big-government policies" has produced a $42 billion deficit.
"I don't care how big the state is, that's mind-boggling. It's not a tax problem. Don't they have the 'excuse me for living' tax out there? The growth of government spending has been enormous. And a creative, reform-minded candidate on the Republican side" could be elected governor.
He encouraged Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay, to try. "She's the kind of person who's lived and managed and led through the disruptive changes that are going on in our lives," Bush says. On Feb. 9, Whitman set up an exploratory committee, normally a precursor to running.
Bush commented last fall that "a big-government Republican" is a nonexistent species. What did he mean?
"I think the one common thread throughout all these strains of conservative thinking and Republicanism is limited government. If we don't have that in common, what else do we have? And the next question you'll ask is what do I think of my brother's record. I think circumstances come into play. When you're attacked as a nation it's legitimate to spend resources to deal with huge holes in national security. And so there are times in history when it's important to use the power of government."
Republicans must also clean up their act on immigration, Bush insists. Last year, he says they "set a tone" that pushed Hispanic voters away. "The tone of the debate reached a point that was very damning to the Republican Party, and the evidence is in. The chest pounders lost."
Bush supports immigration reform as championed by his brother and John McCain, which would allow illegals already in this country to stay. "Politics has to be about ideas and values and aspirations," he says. "It shouldn't be about anger and preying on people's emotions. You can't lead a mob."
To publicize their alternatives to President Obama's policies, Bush wants Republicans to emulate the British ("recognizing that we have a different system") and set up a shadow Cabinet. "We should organize our opposition based on policy," he says. "I don't think the (2008) election was a transformational one in the ideological sense. I don't think Americans went to the left. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't get that sense. It's a huge opportunity to advocate reforms and advocate our beliefs and do so with some humility and recognition that the other guys won."
What did he take away from his experience as governor? Bush says he "learned you could change things if you worked at it. What I learned was how to take ideas and implement them over the long haul. The thing with politics is that it's focused on the here and now." However, "by focusing on the longer-term things I had a chance to take conservative ideas and reform-minded thoughts and put them into practice. It was invigorating. It was uplifting to me personally to see that in America a whole lot of people can work together to accomplish that."
As Bush explains it, an exhausting strategy is required. "You have to have an aspirational goal, and you have to communicate it over and over and over. You have to have the humility to recognize that people aren't watching your every word. … You have to be constantly adding to the reforms. You have to take the risk of measuring the success or lack of it. You have to be held accountable. … Sometimes it's not fun."
Bush has kind words for Obama. He was only the second Democrat to win Florida since 1976, and Bush has nothing but praise for his "spectacularly well-run campaign. They started with the premise that we're going to have a huge database and we're going to connect people to this campaign. When things got going in earnest in the general election, it was a finely tuned machine, to Obama's credit." The campaign spent $60 million in the state, Bush says, based on the correct assumption that "if they won Florida, they'd win the election."
He also has a suggestion. "I think it would be great politically for President Obama" to break with one of his party's interest groups, Bush says. "I hope it's the teachers' union. He can bring about a transformation of education" and speak "on behalf of the kids that traditionally are shut out of the learning process, and (allow) a thousand flowers to bloom, not just one prescribed from Washington."
Bush has a personal motive for urging Republicans to "avoid personal, partisan attacks" on Obama, a strategy they've largely followed in Washington. "I would never want Obama to go through what my brother went through. It might be fair that every president gets the same amount of vitriol. But it's not right for our country, it's not going to help us, and it's not going to help Republicans."
Fred Barnes is executive editor of the Weekly Standard and a Fox News Channel commentator. Reprinted from the Wall Street Journal © 2009 Dow Jones & Company. All rights reserved.