CORAL GABLES — The first thing you notice about Jeb Bush's office suite in the grand Biltmore Hotel is how bland and modest it is. Cramped even.
The furniture looks as if it could have been on sale at Office Depot. There's no desk, just a round table cluttered with papers and a drafting table for the computer because he often works standing.
You might picture elegant mahogany and antiques befitting a former Florida governor who remains one of the most important voices in the Republican Party and — he'll hate this line — someone who may be president one day.
But Bush, 59, has never been the showy sort, and the no-frills efficiency of the Jeb Bush and Associates office makes sense.
Minutes after taping a Meet the Press segment for this morning, he bounds into the office for an interview, relaxed and cheerful, talking about how he will spend time in Tampa helping his sons, George P. and Jeb Jr., with their political committees.
In a 45-minute conversation Thursday, Florida's most respected Republican takes every opportunity to heap praise on Mitt Romney. But being himself, blunt and unguarded, he also can't avoid providing a sharp contrast to the cautious Republican nominee.
While he lambastes President Barack Obama's record, he's clearly fed up with Republicans in Washington failing to offer alternatives. Romney has yet to clearly spell out what he would do about the looming fiscal crisis, but Bush plowed right into his prescriptions, including support for the Simpson-Bowles budget plan that vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan opposed.
Excerpts from our interview:
Do you feel liberated — you're not in office, you're a big Romney supporter but not part of the campaign — that you can be more of an honest broker on some of these issues or ideas being debated?
Yeah. With Mitt I want to be helpful, I don't want to be contradictory, but you're asking kind of a broader question, and in the last couple years I've had views that don't necessarily, that I don't have to get permission to say them. There's a certain appeal in just having people speak their minds.
That's the main one.
Are you worried about your party?
I'm worried about our country, and I think conservative solutions are ones that can best deal with our structural problems. The focus ought to be on those things. Winning political points is fine, it's good, it's part of being a democracy, but solving problems is really what people are expecting and people are wanting.
I think the focus isn't on solving problems as much as expressing a view about what the problems are. Okay, I got that: We're in a heap of trouble, we're not growing economically. The president has failed. His policies have failed. I think now the effort needs to be — and this is why I'm excited about Romney's campaign — I think the general election needs to go beyond describing the president's failures to offering a compelling alternative.
So is that the advice to Romney, to put a little more meat on the bone in terms of what he would do as president?
He's already got meat on the bone, but the cumulative effect of describing the alternative now is what's important. And I think the selection of Paul Ryan is a compelling indicator that that's where the campaign's going.
You mean big, bold ideas?
Yeah, bigger ideas. Ideas of purpose. Willing to take a risk on behalf of things that are broken. That's what has been lacking in American politics to a certain extent. … If you wanted to synthesize the campaign up until very recently it's been, "Mr. President, you've failed," and President Obama saying, "It could be worse."
So what would you like to hear from Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan?
I've heard it, but I'm not sure a majority of Americans has heard how you create a climate of sustained economic growth, how you put your fiscal house in order and how doing those two things you can restore optimism and American greatness. That's what I think his acceptance speech will be about, and that's what I think his campaign will be about. I mean, it's fair game to point out the president's anemic economic results under his watch and how his policies have only made things worse, but I think Americans are looking for an alternative, as well, and that sets the stage to actually govern, which is my bigger, broader point. Conservatives need to govern.
When Mitt Romney picked Paul Ryan as his running mate, a lot of people immediately pointed to Florida — uh oh, entitlement reform, that's the third rail in politics. How problematic politically do you think that is here?
I think the opposite. I was out of the country the week the choice was made but it looked to me like there was a lot of reporting, and a lot of speechifying, about what the plan was. And persuading people that there's a better path, that Medicare is going to be there for everybody over 55 but it will be bankrupt for anybody under 50 today, and that the president has cut Medicare to create a whole new entitlement rather than trying to sustain the trust fund …
But as someone who went through those last-minute scare calls to seniors in your first gubernatorial campaign (when the Lawton Chiles campaign in 1994 launched calls to seniors warning that Bush and his running mate were hostile to Social Security and seniors).
Yes, Medi-scare, Social Security scaring, there's a noble tradition, or unnoble tradition, of that in Florida. But if you give people enough facts, and this last week there was a tremendous amount of information out there about what the plan was, then I think it's a winning agenda. And if you look at the polling by age, Romney is ahead double digits among people 65 and over.
You've met Obama several times. Is it just chitchat, or is it substance? What's he like?
I've met him three times, twice with my dad. He was very gracious to my father, which I appreciated a lot. He showed a real kindness to my dad. We talked a little policy, but not much. It was more just inviting a former president back to the White House. The other time I met him was down here when (Education Secretary) Arne Duncan asked me to suggest a high school where he would speak and asked if I would introduce him.
You had no qualms doing that?
Not at all (laughs). I thought it was funny to watch (Democratic U.S. Reps.) Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Frederica Wilson having a heart attack in the front row on the left while I was introducing the president and he was applauding elements of our education reforms, embracing them and not in a superficial way.
Give me a quick report card on Florida: two things you think are going really well, two things that really concern you.
I'd say the business climate under Gov. (Rick) Scott — there's a constant effort to improve it that over the long haul, through the ebbs and flows of economic cycles, will help the state. We have a long way to go in student outcomes, K-12 and higher education. There's a lot more that could be done across the board.
Do you think education is the most important issue facing the country, understanding that obviously the economy is the most important short-term issue?
It's definitely in the top five, that we're almost guaranteeing a lack of competitiveness by the education results that we're achieving, and have been achieving for a generation. There's 3 million jobs that are unfilled right now for skilled workers because there aren't people qualified to fill them. It's heartbreaking.
In terms of huge problems looming, when you look at the fiscal cliff, what would you advocate?
This is the buildup of dysfunction for the last few years. There's no magic bullet, but what I would say is the best alternative would be a Romney election victory and a Republican Senate. You still have a 60-vote requirement, so on the big structural issues, like entitlement reform and tax reform, you'd still have to work to find some consensus.
Imagine 51 senators and Majority Leader (Mitch) McConnell and Speaker (John) Boehner and Mitt Romney get together in transition. I could see them saying, "We're going to pass a budget, you're going to sign it on your inauguration day that changes the current run rate of spending to send a positive signal to the market. President Romney says, "I'm going to sign approval for the Excel pipeline on the first day. And I'm going to sign — I'm just making this up now — I'm going to sign an executive order that will do a thorough review of all the rulemaking processes and we're going to freeze some of them until we establish the template that we use to look at all rules — not just Dodd-Frank and Obamacare — but all rules. Then you announce a task force to make recommendations for the creation of an energy strategy beyond the energy pipeline that creates incentives for the use of natural gas in transportation and a variety of other things. …
There are probably 10 of those things that you could do, and what happens is it sends a really powerful signal to the world that we're not as dysfunctional as it appears and that we're going to begin to solve problems. You defer the two big issues coming due (massive spending cuts and tax increases) … in return for vowing to deal with them in a more systematic way and in return for creating some certainty that your budget is going to be passed.
But ultimately, you're going to have to deal with tax reform and entitlement reform. That's where you do have to have bipartisan support. You can't do that without it. I do see that happening under Gov. Romney. I don't see it happening under re-elected Barack Obama.
He's had two huge opportunities to do it. One was his election. It turned out a whole lot of people didn't believe he was a doctrinaire ideologue. … He won because people really thought this was a special, extraordinary candidate that was offering something dramatically different from the status quo, not a sharp left turn.
What was the second opportunity?
After the 2010 midterm election shellacking … he could have said, "I learned my lesson, I'm appointing this group led by two great Americans, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, and their recommendations I will take very seriously and I will present to Congress." So he takes those recommendations and doesn't do anything, doesn't say a single thing. … The rest of his tenure has been defined by political activity. They've made the calculation that running for re-election is more important than governing.
Would you have embraced Simpson-Bowles?
To save the country's fiscal future? I would.
Even though it has tax increases.
That's the part of leadership. … Our biggest problem is spending, by far. But in order to get 60 votes for entitlement reform and tax reform to revitalize our economy and create hope for people? That's what leaders are supposed to do.
How much do you miss public service?
I miss being governor, I don't miss politics. It was a blast. It was a great job.
Are you done with politics? What about 2016?
I don't know, but I am hoping for a Romney re-election.
Adam Smith can be reached at [email protected]