Adam C. Smith: Jeb Bush, a moderate squish? Florida knows different

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush hasn’t said whether or not he’ll run for president, but he is talking like a candidate.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush hasn’t said whether or not he’ll run for president, but he is talking like a candidate.
Published Dec. 17, 2014

Respected Ronald Reagan biographer Craig Shirley told the Washington Examiner recently that Jeb Bush is the latest in a line of Bushes who oppose Reaganism. Radio host Mark Levin has dismissed Florida's former governor as "a very good moderate Democrat," while pioneering conservative activist Richard Viguerie for at least two years has been trashing Bush as a dangerous, big government Republican.

Meanwhile, much of the speculation about the 2016 presidential race lately centers on whether a moderate is a viable contender for the Republican nomination.

Jeb Bush, a moderate squish?

The governor who treated trial lawyers and teachers union leaders as enemies of the state? Who stripped job protections from civil servants? Who slashed taxes? Whose passion for privatization included enacting the nation's first statewide private school voucher program and extended to privatizing health care for the poor, prisons and child protection services?

This "very good moderate Democrat" defied court after court to try to force the reinsertion of feeding tubes for brain-damaged Terri Schia­vo and consistently backed more restrictions on abortions and fewer on gun ownership. He fought for reduced entitlement spending and, deriding nanny-state impulses, repealed the helmet law for motorcyclists in Florida and vetoed a GOP-backed bill requiring booster seats for kids in cars.

"For us who live in Florida, who experienced the eight-year Jeb Bush governorship, it's almost laughable and maybe even hysterical for people who live outside of Florida to claim that he's a moderate," said former House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, himself a conservative Republican who led the opposition to Florida accepting federal money to expand Medicaid to more than 800,000 people.

"This is a guy who probably has as conservative a record as governor as anybody I've ever seen," Weatherford said, "and he has one of the most successful records as governor of anybody I've ever seen."

The specious perception of Bush outside of Florida reflects both a fundamental misunderstanding of the man, probably due to assumptions based on the presidential records of his father and brother, and also how far rightward the Republican Party has shifted since Bush left the Governor's Mansion in 2007.

"He is thoughtful and informed, but there is nothing liberal about Jeb Bush. He is an arch-conservative," said Dan Gelber, who as a Democratic leader in the Legislature respectfully and constantly fought most of Bush's agenda. "He might have been moderate now and again, but even then it was probably by accident."

Bush was not just a successful Republican governor politically; He was a conservative activist governor who relished pushing the envelope on policy. Conservative activists elsewhere may revile the Bush name, but in America's biggest battleground state this Bush is like a Milton Friedman or Barry Goldwater in terms of promoting conservatism.

"(The) mere fact that he was able to propose and implement a sweeping change in Florida government during his two terms remains a notable achievement in state governance. It is also a notable achievement for the conservative movement, because Bush showed that conservatives could do more than offer tax cuts; they could also change government in fundamental ways," University of North Florida political scientist Matthew Corrigan writes in his new book, Conservative Hurricane: How Jeb Bush Remade Florida.

And yet Bush, 61, may be too moderate to win over today's GOP primary voters.

Bush himself acknowledged as much last week when he suggested a successful Republican presidential candidate likely has to antagonize much of the party's base, or "lose the primary to win the general."

That's because Jeb Bush, whether or not he is at heart more of a Reagan Republican than a George W. Bush Republican, holds positions on immigration reform and education that are toxic in a Republican primary.

When Bush governed Florida from 1999 to 2007, immigration reform was a minor issue here and nationally.

It's a different world now. Mitt Romney helped kill Texas Gov. Rick Perry's candidacy by bludgeoning him as soft on undocumented immigrants, and Marco Rubio is still trying to recover after embracing a pathway to citizenship in the Senate.

Likewise, back when Gov. Bush was at the vanguard of pressing for greater education accountability — and more private school vouchers — virtually every conservative political figure was on the same page.

Today, the Common Core education standards adopted by more than 40 states are widely vilified by Republican activists, as well as by former Common Core supporters considering presidential campaigns like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Bush is expected to make a decision on running in the coming weeks, but he looks and sounds like a candidate. And strange as it may seem for those who know him best to think of him as a moderate, staking out that space may be the right path for him to win the nomination.

With so many other potentially formidable conservative candidates — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Perry, to name just some of the prospects — campaigning as the competent pragmatist willing to "lose the primary," so to speak, could pull it off.

"If there's multiple people in the race, you don't need 51 percent to win," noted former Pinellas County state Sen. Dennis Jones, who was an endangered breed, a moderate Republican, after Bush took over the Florida GOP and often butted heads with him.

Jones, though, hopes Bush runs.

"Jeb certainly was a lot more conservative than I was, but I know him to be a real tough thinker, and I always respected him for the fact he never needed a poll to tell him what his position would be and you never needed to worry about him keeping that position," Jones said. "When he brought a plan forward, he was down in the weeds and working with people to make sure it was going to be successful."

But even Bush's bona fides as a fiscal conservative are under attack because he has refused to pledge never to raise taxes under any circumstance.

All eight Republicans running for the 2012 Republican nomination said they would oppose any tax increase even if it was part of a deficit reduction package that included 10 parts of spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases. At a congressional hearing in 2012, Jeb Bush disagreed.

"If you could bring to me a majority of people to say that we're going to have $10 in spending cuts for $1 of revenue enhancement — put me in, coach," said Bush, who also explained why he never signed an Americans for Tax Reform pledge to never raise taxes.

"Republicans were all holding out on not raising taxes, and he was a guy from Florida, a former, washed-up politician from Florida not involved in that fight … and he jumps in says, 'I'd raise taxes.' You're either part of the team and you want to be leader of the team, or you want to be something else. His dad decided to be something else," Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform told the Wall Street Journal last week, referring to George H.W. Bush's broken "no new taxes" vow.

Yep, times have changed.

In late 2006, Norquist told the Palm Beach Post that Jeb Bush was America's best governor: "He should change his name and run for president."

Contact Adam C. Smith at Follow @adamsmithtimes.

Correction: An earlier version of this column appearing in print and online mischaracterized Sen. Marco Rubio's position on Common Core.