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Tim Nickens

Jeb Bush wields clout without accountability

If Jeb Bush wants to be governor again, the job will be open soon.

If he wants to be a U.S. senator, he should run against Gov. Charlie Crist in the Republican primary instead of sniping at him in the national media.

Of course, Bush won't enter either race.

Why should he?

Bush is advancing his conservative agenda in the Legislature and influencing the Senate race without coming out of the shadows. He has tremendous clout and no accountability. He makes tons of money, travels the world and answers to no one.

Less than two years ago, Bush declined Times' staff writer Sydney P. Freedberg's request for an interview by claiming he was "trying hard to stay out of the public eye to let my successor do his thing.''

Now he's more like Voldemort in the Harry Potter books. You can feel his presence in the room, his surrogates are doing the dirty work and he still finds ways to leave his own mark. And there's no Harry Potter around to match his intellect or political skills.

In Tallahassee, the Republican-led Legislature has rammed through a sweeping education bill that abolishes tenure for new public school teachers and ties teacher raises to high-stakes testing. It has Bush written all over it, yet he never appeared in the Capitol. His close ally, Sen. John Thrasher of St. Augustine, sponsored the legislation. The executive director at Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future, Patricia Levesque, testified before committees and knows the bill better than most lawmakers. The foundation aired an ad promoting the legislation, and Bush urged his supporters to embrace it as teachers fought back.

"I talked to Jeb this morning,'' Thrasher told reporters the morning after the Senate passed the bill. "He was very pleased with what we did. Very pleased.''

I'll bet.

When Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, joked that this is Bush's best legislative session, he wasn't far off. State lawmakers also voted to expand one of the private tuition vouchers created during the Bush administration — even though it will cost the state millions and is on shaky legal ground. They asked voters to loosen the class size amendment that Bush hates. And they are exploring a dramatic expansion of a managed care Medicaid project started by Bush — even though the experiment has achieved questionable results.

Bush has more influence over the Legislature as the former two-term governor than the guy actually living in the Governor's Mansion.

But you have to feel for Crist. He is running against both Marco Rubio and Bush's shadow in the Republican primary for Senate. Even the Fox television debate between Rubio and Crist became two against one when Fox aired a video clip of Bush criticizing Crist's support of the federal stimulus package.

"I consider it unforgivable in the sense we're now in a battle for our country's future,'' Bush said.

How would Bush have dealt with the economic crisis in Florida without the federal stimulus money?

How would Bush explain laying off thousands of teachers or denying medical care to Floridians on Medicaid if there were no federal money?

Shouldn't Bush take some responsibility for the state's situation since he cut billions in taxes that could have helped Florida better weather the recession? Shouldn't he take some responsibility for the overdevelopment that contributed to the housing crash?

Bush cannot be bothered with such questions any more. Instead, he's free to take potshots like he did in a New York Times story on Crist's initiative to buy property from U.S. Sugar Corp. for restoration of the Everglades.

"To replace projects that were under way for a possibility of a project decades from now is not a good trade,'' Bush said. "On a net basis, this appears to me there has been a replacement of science-based environmental policy for photo-op environmental policy.''

Many environmentalists still support Crist's proposal and note that some of the restoration projects Bush embraced are based on untested methods. But Bush only plays offense these days and doesn't have to play any defense.

The fact is, Bush has never liked Crist. He treated him shabbily during the 1998 campaign, when Bush was gliding to the Governor's Mansion and Crist was waging a quixotic U.S. Senate campaign against incumbent Democrat Bob Graham. After Crist received more than 2.4 million votes even in defeat, Bush did not give him a high-profile state agency to run. He made him an obscure deputy in an out-of-the-way office. Crist then was elected education commissioner, attorney general and governor by charting his own course — not by riding any Bush coattails.

The governor is not the policy wonk his predecessor is. But Crist's political instincts and general decency have served him well. You won't hear Crist complain about how Bush left behind messes in property insurance, the Department of Corrections and the Department of Children and Families. Sometimes, the governor is too polite.

Rubio's record of public service is awfully thin, and his lavish spending of political contributions hardly shouts conservatism and fiscal responsibility. But Bush considers Rubio a more fitting heir than Crist and his proxy in the Senate race. The winner of the Republican primary will probably face Democrat Kendrick Meek — who pushed through the class size amendment Bush opposed and once staged a sit-in on affirmative action in Bush's office.

It must be nice to get your way and settle old scores without having to defend your own record.

Jeb Bush wields clout without accountability 04/09/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 9, 2010 6:30pm]
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