Showing off their Average Joe side, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and unsuccessful 2008 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney recently used a pizza parlor in Arlington, Va., to launch a group they hope will freshen up the Republican Party. The newly minted National Council for a New America is intended to recover the party's political momentum by collecting and advancing ideas that are "forward-looking and relevant," according to Bush.
But having watched Bush lead Florida for eight years, I view the prospect of tapping him to bring the concerns of average Americans into the Republican Party as a little like asking the Real Housewives of New Jersey to live on a budget — it's an exercise so improbable that one isn't sure if it's farce or just delusion.
As governor of Florida, Bush had plenty of ideas for transforming government. But they all sounded eerily like every other Republican idea: cut taxes to disproportionately benefit the wealthy, privatize government services, push for taxpayer money to fund private and parochial schools, and interfere with highly personal end-of-life decisions and reproductive choice.
Gov. Jeb Bush made his mark on the national stage in two unappetizing episodes. First, the 2000 presidential election fiasco, which ultimately gave the presidency to his brother in a process that reeked of partisanship. And second, when in 2003 Bush went off the deep end in the Terri Schiavo matter.
As Schiavo's husband sought court permission to remove her feeding tube after Terri Schiavo had spent years in a persistent vegetative state, Bush used every means at his disposal to stop him. Bush pushed for a law requiring that the severely brain damaged woman have her feeding tube reinserted. Then, when the courts found the law unconstitutional, he took the fight to Congress and his brother in the White House.
The Schiavo circus cemented Bush's reputation as a hard-core religious conservative willing to use the power of the state to impose his own morality on the wrenching personal decisions of others.
Are these really the "forward- looking" ideas that Republicans are seeking?
On solving problems that average people face, Bush's philosophy was that government is not competent to help. As much as he could, Bush transferred state jobs into private hands, increasing the percentage of the state budget going to private venders from 30 percent to about 44 percent. This didn't necessarily result in better or less expensive government services — to the contrary in notable cases — but some favored private businesses surely liked it.
As to his education agenda, one of Bush's top priorities was the establishment of the largest private school voucher program in the nation. Once in place, Bush then fought to make sure that private schools receiving taxpayer dollars, including those with a mission of religious indoctrination, would not be educationally accountable. While imposing a rigorous regime of standardized testing on public schools through the FCAT tests, Bush refused to impose those accountability standards on private schools.
Meanwhile, Bush tried his best to scuttle a voter-approved public school reform that reduced the number of students per class depending on the grade. Too expensive, he said.
Which leads us to tax cutting, where Bush was a true maestro. Florida's wealthy should be throwing roses and chanting "Bravo!" Bush succeeded in eliminating one of Florida's only taxes on personal wealth — the intangibles tax. The tax applied to only about 200,000 Floridians — generally couples who averaged $2 million in stocks and bonds and other taxable assets. But Bush hated the tax, calling it "insidious." All told, his tax-cutting mania deprived state coffers of $19 billion, making it that much harder for Florida to cover the cost of education, health care and other essential state services in tough economic times.
Bush may still be a superstar in Republican circles, but that is precisely why the party is foundering. Bush's ideas won't get us to a better tomorrow where average Americans enjoy decent jobs, a health care system that works for everyone and a regulatory structure that reins in recklessly greedy and antiworker practices in the private sector. But if what you care most about is keeping people in vegetative states artificially alive against the wishes of their spouse, then he's your man.