Who's a Conservative? Jeb Bush Is About to Find Out

Can Florida's former governor appease the new right wing of his party?

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush campaigns with Florida Governor Rick Scott during a stop at Milander Park on November 2, 2014 in Hialeah, Florida.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Jeb Bush’s increasingly likely presidential campaign would put his name on a ballot for the first time in 14 years. That spell has produced a challenge for him—not the additional gray hair, out-of-practice public speaking skills or really anything he’s had control over at all.

It’s that suddenly, after about the average life expectancy of a Beagle, Bush isn’t viewed as a conservative.

“He’s not even a moderate, he’s a liberal Republican,” said Brent Bozell, head of ForAmerica, a Tea Party group that specializes in social media campaigns. “He’s running on Common Core and amnesty. These are issues that Obama supports. It boggles the mind that anyone would consider him conservative.”

That wasn’t the case in Florida, where, as governor from 1999 to 2007, Bush ushered in a new era of conservatism, pulling a large, politically diverse state away from a period of moderate Democratic control and hard to the right as he cut taxes each year in office, oversaw a massive expansion of school choice, and whacked his fellow Republicans' spending projects from the budget with such regularity that he earned the nickname “Veto Corleone.”

“He was never criticized for being a moderate, or center-right,” said Brian Yablonski, who was Bush’s director of policy. “He was square in the middle of conservatism, and still is.”

When Bush left office, he had an 87 percent approval rating among Republicans, according to a Quinnipiac University poll. When asked to consider his potential successors that year, 81 percent of Republicans and 69 percent of white, born-again Christians said they wanted the next governor to continue Bush’s policies.

But when the son and brother of two previous presidents stepped into the fray on Tuesday, announcing plans to “actively explore” a White House campaign and form a political operation, he met a Republican Party that is not his father's anymore.

In Iowa—the first state to hold a presidential nominating contest—just 2 percent of caucusgoer respondents aligned with the Tea Party (and 4 percent in all) say Bush would be their first choice, according to a Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll in October. Sixty percent of moderate Iowa Republicans say they have a favorable view of Bush, second only to the 72 percent favorable rating for Representative Paul Ryan, according to the poll.

“I don’t think we need another Bush, period,” Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican and one of the most conservative members of the chamber, told reporters Tuesday.

George Bush Sr., the eventual 41st president of the United States, is pictured in 1970 with his four sons, from left: Neil; Jeb; George W., the 43rd president; and Marvin.
George Bush Sr., the eventual 41st president of the United States, is pictured in 1970 with his four sons, from left: Neil; Jeb; George W., the 43rd president; and Marvin.
Getty Images

There's a certain irony to Bush’s clash with his party's activist base. His conservative successes as governor made it more likely that Tea Party candidates would be competitive in Florida, where the movement has had some of its biggest victories, North Florida political science professor Matthew Corrigan writes in his new book, Conservative Hurricane: How Jeb Bush Remade Florida. Bush helped launch the political career of Senator Marco Rubio, who was perhaps the Tea Party movement’s top triumph in 2010, and has raised money for Tea Party governors, including Maine’s Paul LePage.

“Many of the policies he championed and carried out in Florida have become the templates for other conservative governors around the nation since the earliest years of the new century,” Corrigan writes. “Jeb, armed with a compliant Republican majority in the legislature, passed a broader conservative agenda that his brother did in Texas.”

For one, Bush spearheaded billions in tax cuts and fee reductions each year in office, no small feat in a state whose culture of low taxes traces back to its ban income and inheritance taxes in 1920. As governor, Bush pushed for cuts ranging from the elimination of a $10 annual car emissions test to a phase-out of the so-called intangibles tax, a charge on stocks, bonds and mutual funds that by 1999 was generating nearly $1 billion a year for the state.

A decade before labor unions put Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker through a recall election over changes to collective bargaining laws, Bush drew the ire of union bosses by pushing for privatization. He signed a bill that eliminated protected status for more than 16,000 state workers—about 8 percent of workforce—so they could be hired and fired more easily. Hundreds marched on the state Capitol in 2001, Bush’s third year in office, upset about the growing trend toward privatizing state jobs.

A more stinging protest, led by then-state Senator Kendrick Meek, a Miami Democrat who went on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, followed Bush’s refusal to discuss with some lawmakers his “One Florida” plan to end affirmative action in college admissions. Meek’s 25-hour sit-in at the governor’s office was followed by a series of highly charged hearings across the state where Bush was excoriated, and then 11,000 people marching on Tallahassee, which civil-rights leaders said was the largest-ever march in Florida.

Bush banned partial-birth abortion and required parental notification before terminating some pregnancies. He outsourced the state foster care and adoption functions and signed the National Rifle Association’s first stand-your-ground law allowing deadly force in self-defense. Mother Teresa’s attorney advised him in end-of-life issues and, in a 2003 showdown with the state court system that received national attention, he pushed for a law to reinsert feeding tubes for Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged St. Petersburg woman.

“Those of us who were there—of any party—are bemused when people try to label the governor as anything other than conservative,” Yablonski said. 

“Governor Bush has a strong record,” added Kristy Campbell, a spokesman for Bush who worked in his governor’s office. “He will have an opportunity in the coming months to talk a little more about that successful record.”

Governor Jeb Bush speaks to reporters at the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee on Nov. 16, 2000.
Governor Jeb Bush speaks to reporters at the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee on Nov. 16, 2000.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Bush’s defining issue as governor was education reform, one that sparked a fierce, years-long battle with liberal groups but has now become a liability among conservative activists. As governor, he oversaw the creation of the first statewide voucher system, which let students in failing schools use tax money to pay for private-school tuition. It was later struck down by the state Supreme Court.

His push for accountability led to a more robust testing system that was used to measure the performance of students and teachers and assign letter grades to schools. It also led to his support of Common Core.

The academic standards, a bipartisan initiative that 43 states have adopted, don’t dictate curriculum, but instead set benchmarks such as calling for students to be tested and trained on computers and generally be ready for the workplace. The issue has divided Bush from much of the potential Republican presidential field as Tea Party activists complain the standards were pushed by corporate bureaucrats and amount to a federal takeover of education.

No issue better crystalizes the political shift confronting Bush. Instead of fighting teacher unions and other traditionally Democratic interests over academic standards as he did as governor, Bush may soon be defending himself against Republican primary opponents in the presidential race.

“Most of us believe in less federal government and more decentralized government, particularly with education,” Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican eyeing his own presidential campaign, said Tuesday on Fox News. “For Jeb Bush to run in the primary will be very, very difficult. Because if you’re going to be for a national curriculum and for Common Core and for No Child Left Behind—this accumulation of power in Washington—that’s not very popular.”

“He’s been out of this a while,” Paul added. “So maybe he needs to get back in and practice up a bit.”

Jim Rowley contributed to this report.

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