Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Meet Jeb Bush

Name: Jeb Bush

Position: Former governor of Florida

Party: Republican

Suggested nicknames: Jeb, JB, Johnny Education, Papa Rubio, Jebelicious.

Career arc:

a. Graduated from University of Texas at Austin with a BA in Latin American studies (too only 2.5 years to graduate, and he was Phi Kappa Phi).

b. James Baker helped get him a job at Texas Commerce Bank where he spent two years working in international finance in Caracas, Venezuela.

c. Helped dad run for president in 1980.

d. Worked on real estate venture in Miami (and did a number of other things during this time -- like, randomly buying a Panamanian footwear company and becoming a part owner of the Jaguars. Again, random).

e. Ran for governor of Florida in 1994, lost.

f. Started a non-profit think tank and worked with other non-profits and think tanks.

g. Ran for governor in 1998, won, then won reelection four years later.

Gubernatorial Record:

Jeb's legacy issue was education, which he transformed in Florida and which remains his primary passion even unto this day.

He pushed vouchers, standardized testing, and has collaborated -- post-office -- with President Obama's education chief, Arne Duncan.

One reason for Jeb's zeal for education reform? He sees it (as opposed to income redistribution) as a way of addressing inequalities in society.

That's not to say his education reforms were wholly embraced. They remain controversial today, but the battle lines are familiar -- teachers unions vs. everyone else.

And things are fairly lopsided.  

Barack Obama himself called Jeb a "champion of education reform", while sharing the stage with him in 2011.

"We are also honored to be joined here today by another champion of education reform, somebody who championed reform when he was in office, somebody who is now championing reform as a private citizen -- Jeb Bush...The truth is I've gotten to know Jeb because his family exemplifies public service. And we are so grateful to him for the work that he's doing on behalf of education. So, thank you, Jeb."

No one in the GOP '16 field has more education cred than Jeb (although Jindal is nipping at his heels).

The big question is whether voters will reward education warriors in 2016. At first glance, you might say no. After all, the economy, jobs, health care, national security tend to be the blue chip issues.

But even if it's not a burning issue, a Republican who's articulate on education could help cut into the gender gap, since women more likely to name education as a top priority.

Hispanics also are particularly concerned about education; thus, theoretically Jeb could wield education to eat into the Dem advantage with women and Hispanics.

Florida's GDP grew from about $420 million when Bush took office to nearly $800 million when he left office, which remains the high watermark (see graph here). So nothing to worry about there for Jeb.


Jeb leans conservative on just about every issue, except for immigration, and with the party's possible shift toward the middle on the issue, he could get in style at exactly the right time (read Project Vote Smart here to get a sense of his ideology).

But here's the caveat: Jeb has been sniping at his own party, sporadically but no less pointedly, for the past four years.

He's hit the GOP for a) immigration policy b) tone and c) ideological rigidity numerous times.

As for points "a" and "b", he argued against Arizona's controversial immigration law and called out the GOP, publicly, and reportedly, privately to Mitt Romney for being too harsh on immigration.

As for point "c", he said Reagan would have had trouble getting nominated in today's GOP, which is one of the more familiar talking points of those trying to push the party toward the middle, and he even employed a variant of the Charlie Crist/Arlen Specter: I didn't leave my party; my party left me.

Jeb, during the 2012 primary:

"I used to be a conservative and I watch these debates and I'm wondering, I don't think I've changed, but it's a little troubling sometimes when people are appealing to people's fears and emotion rather than trying to get them to look over the horizon for a broader perspective and that's kind of where we are."

Really? Did he just say "I used to be a conservative" and couple that with an attack, claiming that the GOP was "appealing to people's fears and emotion"? Yeah, he did!

In fact, Jeb has been so openly dismissive of his party's direction over the past four years that he's frequently prefaced his comments with, literally, "This will prove I'm not running for anything". Of course, it always turns out that the "this" was some hit on the current party.

Having said all that, Jeb is beloved by many intellectual conservatives who appreciate his thoughtful approach to issues, his creativity, and his refusal to let the Mark Levin wing of the party dictate his ideological destiny.

But make no mistake -- ideologically and pragmatically, he's still a Bush.

SPOUSE: Columba Bush

Columba Bush

Read profiles of Columba and the overwhelming sense you get is of one who values her privacy.

That was put, perhaps most colorfully, by Liz Balmaseda in a 1989 profile when she wrote that Bush would "trade 20 society galas for one juicy Spanish soap opera savored in the comfort of her South Dade County home."

Then, in the same piece, Balmaseda gets a remarkably frank quote from Columba's oldest sister, Lucila Schmitz:

``Columba`s problem is that she married a man who would later be entangled in important politics,`` says Columba`s older sister and closest confidante, Lucila Schmitz. ``So this affected the tranquil life she expected. I think she would have been just as happy staying home with her soaps. But now she`s there, in place. Everything is in place, and it has all happened quickly for her.``

Of course, as Florida's First Lady, custom dictated that she step out of her shell a bit, but she never relished the role, and interestingly enough, New York Magazine suggested last October that she might have scuttled a Jeb 2012 bid.

As 2012 approached, he seriously mulled the presidency. Donors and former aides urged him to consider. He was again torn. People close to Bush describe several factors that dissuaded him, including a desire to make more money.

But the major reason was the unwillingness, or inability, of his wife to be a political partner. Columba Bush, long and awkward presence in the Bush family, speaks English haltingly and has rarely joined her husband on political stages. When Jeb became governor, she spent less time in the capital of Tallahassee than she did in their home near Miami, where the family, including Jeb, all spoke Spanish.

Her reluctance is even more important, considering that more and more is being demanded of would-be First Ladies, who've turned into formidable stump speakers and campaigners in their own right (let the record show that I would not want to be a First Lady).

So yeah, this is a big deal and coupled with the fact that Jeb's interest in elective politics seems perpetually ambivalent, I think it's a better than 50% chance that he won't run in 2016.


If the GOP wants to remake itself into a moderate-friendly haven, there's no more thoughtful craftsman than Jeb.

He has the rhetoric, record, and respect that could instantly put you near the head of the class, and when you couple that with the money he could raise and connections he could tap, he'd swing a pretty heavy bat.

Then there's the fact that he's from Florida and remains beloved there. In fact, a famous poll last year showed him beating Barack Obama in the state, 57%-38% -- that's certainly a bit of an anomaly, but it's another data point showing how popular he is in the Partly Cloudy state (and of course, it'd be Clinton; not Obama he'd be running against).


Where to start?

Let's start with the "Bush" name which remains electorally tarnished and doesn't seem to be getting much better.

In 2011, a poll showed Obama squashing Jeb in a hypothetical race by 20%. I doubt that's because voters didn't like Jeb's plan on education. It's probably because they didn't like his last name.

Then you consider the fact that Obama vs. Romney was, to a great extent, actually Obama vs. Bush, with the president continually revisiting the Bush years and Romney ducking and dodging the comparisons.

And then you consider this -- the party is desperate to prove it's turned a page, and with the last chapter colored nearly entirely by "Bush", it's not likely that they'll idly let that chapter continue.

Of course, I get the fact that Jeb is a different animal from his brother, but the public remains constitutionally unable to process distinctions and nuance or release themselves of calcified perception.

And there's nothing to indicate that the Bush name will get electorally stronger over the next four years. Time often does that, but we learned in 2012 that the rehabilitation will take far longer than we thought.

In fact, is it such a given that Jeb could easily nail down Florida?

A recent Public Policy Polling survey showed Hillary beating him by 5% in the state. Incidentally, Marco Rubio actually only lost by 4%, so you can make the argument that Jeb brings nothing to the Florida Equation that Rubio can't deliver.

So there are really two things keeping Jeb from the nomination -- a) the GOP's desire to move on to a newer, fresher image and b) the enduring noose that is the Bush name.

Both of those are more powerful, electorally, than you'd think.

Here's one more thing: Jeb deserves and usually gets enormous respect from pretty much everyone, including the media, which continues to insist he could actually win.

In a way, that sort of reminds me of the way people insisted that Haley Barbour had a shot in 2012 or was a strong contender. No one really, actually thought that -- it was just a way of saying "I respect you."

Of course, Bush is theoretically much stronger than Barbour ever was, but the principle is the same: people are giving him a better chance of winning because they like him.


Here's a very dangerous thought for the GOP.

During a primary, you can easily imagine the media stressing just how different Jeb is from his brother.

During the general election, you can easily imagine them stressing just how hard it is to shake the Bush name.

In other words, a long primary lends itself to more nuance -- nuance that only junkies are paying attention to. A short general election is generally based on quick impressions and crass characterizations.

Bush doesn't need the nuance when he'd get it, but when he'd really need it (general election), he wouldn't be able to buy it.

That, I believe, is a genuine, dangerous risk for Republicans.


You might have missed this -- it's Jeb on Morning Joe, talking about how he's the underachieving Bush; then responding to the objections by shaking his head and saying "Ah, poor Jeb, poor Jeb."