What Kind of President Would Jeb Bush Be?

Source: Andy Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Source: Andy Jacobsohn/Getty Images

When a candidate announces the intention to run for president he (and perhaps soon she) immediately becomes a moving target for the media; and it is only natural that we dig into the pasts, presents, and futures of the men and women who want to lead the United States. As my colleague noted earlier this week, “weighing the pros and cons of various candidates,” especially in the early days of the election cycle, helps to “create the personas of candidates almost as much as candidates create their own personas. It’s why comedians have so much power. Look at Sarah Palin: People accidentally attribute things said by Tina Fey to Palin all the time.” With that caveat in place, here is a look at what we know about Jeb Bush thus far.

Unlike a number of other Republicans whose names appear on lists of potential nominees for president in 2016, Bush — a businessman who made his money in private equity — has explicitly said he will “actively explore” a run for the White House in 2016. That December pronouncement made him the first Republican to declare his (or her) intentions.

Will the Bush family name help of hurt Jeb Bush?

The shadow looming over Jeb Bush’s infant campaign is, of course, his brother George W. Bush and, to a small degree, his father, George H.W. Bush. Like the Clintons, the Bushes are a dynasty. The word itself is a critique of political families, as it is commonly used to describe the concentration of power in a single ruling family of an authoritarian regime.

To become governor, Jeb Bush capitalized on the political connections his father’s position afforded him. A review of presidential library records conducted by The New York Times shows that for the 12 years Bush senior held national elective office, Jeb Bush used his unique access to the most powerful levels of the federal government to ask for favors for his Republican allies, inject his personal views, and generally strengthen his political record in his home state of Florida, where he became a two-term governor in 1998. And throughout the letters echos a prominent theme: reliance on his family name. It is clear the network of political relationships he created during his father’s presidency name helped him win that election, which in turn positioned him to be a contender for the 2016 presidential nomination, which he now is. Stripped of his political family, Jeb Bush would have a had a far different political career.

Does Jeb Bush really have different politics than his brother?

And then there is the legacy of the second Bush administration. “The fact is many of the enemies that we face today were emboldened and rose because of George W. Bush’s inept foreign policy,” Mo Elleithee, communications director for the Democratic National Committee, wrote in a recent memorandum. “When the Bush administration misled the world and marched us into war, they damaged our long-standing alliances and made us weaker abroad and at home — and Jeb Bush supported those policies at every turn.” Jeb Bush had addressed the inevitable comparisons to his father and brother, at least with regards to foreign policy. In a speech before the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, he claimed he would be his “own man” in setting his foreign policy agenda and strategies. “I love my brother, I love my dad, I actually love my mother, too,” Bush said. “I admire their service to the nation and the difficult decisions they had to make. But I am my own man. My views are shaped by my own thinking and own experiences.” And his thinking is that Obama’s leadership has been both “inconsistent and indecisive.” But his team of foreign policy advisers looks very similar to his brother’s. For now his words may be enough; however, experts — including former member of George W. Bush’s National Security Council —  agree that Jeb will eventually need to say more about how he will approach the current conflict in the Middle East.

For those who think voters may be scared away by the possibility of a third Bush and a familiar Bush agenda returning to the White House, polling data tells quite a different story. George W. Bush did not leave a shining foreign policy legacy, but it bears remembering that even when his overall job approval rating plummeted below 30% (when at the end of his presidency), 61% of Republicans still approved of his foreign policy. That, coupled with the fact that George W. Bush’s standing has only improved in the seven years since he left office, with his stance on a number of specific foreign policy issues growing more popular with Republicans, suggests that Jeb will not have to fight too hard to distance himself from his brother and most-recent Republican predecessor. And let’s not forget that George W. Bush averaged an approval rating in the mid-80% among Republicans, just 5 points lower than Bill Clinton’s average.

Without the Bush family name does Jeb have any foreign policy credibility?

Governors, such as Bush and his potential opponent in the Republican primaries, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, typically come in to presidential races with limited foreign policy experience, and therefore must convince voters he has the skills to handle the numerous international crises. Remember, his brother also ascended to the presidency from a governorship. But unlike Jeb, when his brother first ran for president in 2000, domestic issues like taxes and entitlement reform far surpassed foreign policy questions as the dominant topics of debate. And while Jeb will need to both show he can strategize intelligently and give different answers to the problems facing the United States abroad than his brother or father would have given, the fact remains that he is still one step ahead of other governors or former governors because of his position as the heir to his family’s political legacy.

Of course, a successful tenure as governor proves a politician’s ability to effectively lead domestically. Home state popularity can serve as one measure of a candidate’s appeal and political talent, especially for the governors of states that do not always and overwhelmingly support a president based solely on party allegiance. And being a strong governor also tells voters he or she is a good administrator, a skill many Republican voters appreciate. In his two terms, Bush built up conservative record, but he also earned himself the nickname, “King Jeb.” As election season picks up, the leading question will be what kind of Republican is Jeb Bush. Some opponents argue that he has cut against Republican orthodoxy. However, a look at his record as governor of Florida suggests that’s not completely accurate.

So what kind of governor was Jeb Bush?

During his January 1999 inaugural address, Jeb Bush made “a pledge to safeguard the interests of the people, not the bureaucrats,” wrote the Washington Post upon the 2007 conclusion of his governorship. “In the ensuing eight years, Bush sent shivers through Florida’s status quo as he gathered more power than any previous governor and reshaped state government to fit his vision.” He implemented some $19-billion worth of tax cuts that primarily benefited the wealthy and business; privatized state jobs; vetoed more than $2 billion in spending over the eight years of his term; fought against affirmative action, abortion, and gun control; gained more power over the judiciary branch; and championed controversial measures, including state-vouchers for private schools (which was eventually struck down by the state Supreme Court), and an amendment to the state’s constitution that would limit death row inmates to a single appeal.

“My gift is that we’ve shown that governors can be activists, they can be reformers, if they want to,” Bush said, summarizing his legacy at the end of his tenure in late 2006.

While working to transform the Florida government from a tangle of red tape and squandered funds to a smaller administration requiring fewer tax dollars to operate, Bush became mired in ethics scandals and the inability of his downsized government to adequately run the education department, provide services to the elderly, or even manage the state’s foster-care system. In particular, the Department of Children and Families lost 500 youth under state care and failed to prevent the deaths of several children. As the Florida economy and its treasury grew under Bush’s leadership, many public services, including the state’s foster-care system, were privatized, without official oversight, leaving many agencies to overrun their budgets by millions of dollars. Still, his legacy as a leader adamant about following his own agenda and committed to fearlessly championing controversial causes will likely only help him, at least in the primary elections.

Is Jeb Bush not conservative enough?

Staunch Republicans see Bush’s positions on immigration and education problematic. “He’s too moderate for the Republican base,” said former presidential contender Pat Buchanan in a November 2014 television appearance, echoing a criticism often voiced by the party’s conservative activists. And he is deeply committed to several centrist causes. Bush has said that if he runs for president he will not withdraw his support for granting legal status to many illegal immigrants. In June 2013, Bush rallied support for immigration reform at the Faith and Freedom Coalition Conference, arguing that America needs more new workers to help pay for retirees, or “to rebuild the demographic pyramid,” in his own words. “Immigrants are more fertile,” Bush said. “And they love families and they have more intact families, and they bring a younger population. Immigrants create an engine of economic prosperity.” He also remains one of the country’s primary defenders of Common Core, the state-driven academic standards despised by the GOP base, which is generally suspicious of federal control. Bush’s foundation has even launched an ad campaign promoting the standards. Both so-called amnesty and federalized education are positions that alienate key Republican groups, and the influential conservative columnist George Will has noted that Bush’s support for Common Core education standards is reason enough not to vote for him.

But can Bush appeal to the Christian right?

While he has taken centrists stands on the key issues of immigration and education, Bush has shown himself willing to support vestigial conservative issues, including standing up for Wall Street. Before the collapse of Lehman Brothers he served on its advisory board, and he now occupies a spot on Barclay’s board. Bush also opposes gay marriage, although he has attempted to downplay that position by focusing on states’ rights. And with his opposition to both abortion and gay marriage, Bush stands a chance of winning a solid percentage of the evangelical vote.

Bush does not seem too concerned, yet, about espousing more-leftist views on such divisive issues as immigration and education. “I guess I’ve been out of office for a while,” Bush told Fox News recently. “So the idea that something I support that people are opposed to, it means that I have to stop supporting it if there’s not any reason based on fact to do that? I just — maybe it’s stubbornness, but I just don’t seem compelled to run for cover when I think this is the right thing to do for our country.” However, his decision to not a sign a pledge promising never to raise taxes may may be more damaging to his chances. What will be even more damaging to his chances is the ease his opponents will have comparing him to 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney.

Does Jeb Bush have a Mitt Romney problem?

Romney’s career in public equity was so damaging that it sunk his candidacy. Of course it did not help that he was caught, on video, writing off the votes of half the country, only further cementing his reputation as an out-of-touch rich guy. “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it,” he said. “That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what.” Romney later acknowledge those words “hurt.” Bush is not likely to make the same mistake, but still he has a similar image. Documents filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on November 27 name him as chairman and manager of a offshore private equity fund, BH Global Aviation. That firm raised $61 million in the month of September, primarily from foreign ­investors, and it is one of at least three such funds Bush has begun in a period less than two years. Overseas funds with mysterious investors and foreign ties may serve as a warning sign for voters.

“Running as the second coming of Mitt Romney is not a credential that’s going to play anywhere, with Republicans or Democrats,” John Brabender, a Republican consultant and veteran of presidential campaigns, told Bloomberg. “Not only would this be problematic on the campaign trail, I think it also signals someone who isn’t seriously looking at the presidency or he wouldn’t have gone down this path.”

Why are some analysts calling Jeb Bush a terrible candidate?

Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith called Jeb Bush a “terrible candidate” because he is out of touch with the Republican base. But for reference, the latest Quinnipiac poll in Iowa found that if the 2016 presidential elections were held today, 25% of respondents would cast their ballot for the up-and-coming governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker — a share twice as high as his nearest rival. Walker “is taking the Republican world by storm,” noted Quinnipiac Director Peter A. Brown. “He’s gone from being unknown outside Wisconsin to the hot candidate, poised to become the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination. Perhaps most impressive about Walker’s numbers is that 57 percent view him favorably to only 7 percent who view him unfavorably — a heck of a first impression.” By comparison, Bush earned just 10% of votes, the lowest of any potential candidate except for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who also received 10% of ballots cast. Plus, even though Bush is well known among respondents, he is “not all that well liked,” with 41% holding a favorable opinion and 40% an unfavorable opinion.


Source: February Quinnipiac Poll

Despite this result, political analysts see Bush as the likely GOP establishment replacement for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was a Republican forerunner before the Bridge Gate scandal injured his credibility. Al Cardenas, who served as chairman of the Florida Republican Party when Bush was the state’s governor, confirmed his widespread appeal in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “Honestly I don’t think I ever came across one person who told me he wasn’t being conservative enough,” Cardenas stated.


Conservatism Scores for Potential GOP 2016 Presidential Nominees, Source: FiveThirtyEight

What is the conservative case for Jeb Bush?

The Huffington Post’s Christina Wilkie agrees that Bush is no moderate. During the 1994 gubernatorial race, an election that he lost, Bush campaigned on a very conservative agenda. Take for example his vision for a new welfare system, under which Florida would have refused federal funds and restrict benefits to just two years of assistance. To be eligible for benefits, poor women would be required to “identify the fathers of their children, submit to random drug tests and work if jobs were available,” according to a Miami Herald story from March 1, 1994. When he ran again in 1998, Bush unveiled a more populist message, with less emphasis on the more controversial aspects of his earlier platform. However, Bush “didn’t actually change” his positions,” Dr. Robert Crew, director of the Master’s Program in Applied American Politics and Policy at Florida State University, told Wilkie. “Bush changed the tenor of his campaigns, and that’s it. The second time he ran, he wasn’t as Ted Cruz-like.”

But becoming more like Ted Cruz could help Bush survive the primary elections and secure his party’s nomination. A number of the social and political changes Bush suggested in 1994, like the reform of the government welfare system, still appeal to the Republican base, and it is the Republican base who votes in primaries. Bush may have left office with a 60% approval rating, but it is important to remember that he has been out of the political game for 12 years. Meanwhile, a new generation of politicians — like Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz — have gained national prominence, and the Tea Party was born. And while Bush may think the hyper-partisanship of modern politics is only “temporary” and (perhaps) surmountable, his Republican opponents were melded in that dynamic. Rubio, Ryan, Walker, and Cruz may occasionally forge their own path, independent of the trajectory of the broader Republican movement, but they do not scorn partisanship politics as Bush does, and that may hurt him in the long run.


Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS

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