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Are you sitting down? Jeb Bush for president

By Gary Reese

July 26, 2010

The downside to a Jeb Bush presidential candidacy would be his name. The upside would be just about everything else.  

For those who hate not just the Bushes, but Republicans and political conservatism in general, Jeb would of course be all wrong. But measured by the standards of conservative bona fides, personality and administrative experience, the 57-year-old is arguably more qualified than any of the perceived early frontrunners for the GOP. 

For starters, he’d likely carry for the Republicans the near-must state of Florida, where in 2007 he exited his second term as governor more or less as popular as he was when he first took office. He won reelection in 2002 by about 13 percent over his Democratic opponent. Charlie Crist in 2006 successfully campaigned to succeed Bush by saying, untruthfully but conveniently, that he was a “Jeb Bush Republican.”  

Bush maintained his solid polling approval numbers despite the pathological disdain of many Americans – and Floridians – for his brother in the White House, and despite the incessant tap dance of negativity the Florida press corps performed on his head for eight years. They hated him all the more because, unlike George W., his swagger sprang from obvious confidence in his abilities, whereas George W.'s swagger was a defensive posture that hid obvious insecurity. Jeb didn’t fear the Florida press corps because he trusted himself and his policies.  

During the rash of hurricanes that besieged Florida in 2004-2005, even Bush’s critics – well, some of them – admitted that the governor seemed to be everywhere at once across the state. He personified executive action.

Also unlike his older brother, Jeb is a fanatical policy wonk; a sort of conservative Bill Clinton. He absolutely loves politics and government. While in Tallahassee for InsiderAdvantage, I recall the then-Senate president saying in private that he wished Bush would stop phoning him every night to talk political details; the senator said he himself wanted a break from the grind. (He also loathed Bush, as did most in the GOP leadership. Bush was mostly a my-way-or-the-highway governor.)

Bush is a working combination of traditional conservatism and new ideas. Exactly what the GOP needs. He has also kept out of the Washington political swamp. By his own admission, he’s too restless and headstrong to have become one of many Republican senators. So he deflated the speculation that he would run for the Senate this year.   

Bush has shown discretion since leaving office. That’s been tough for him because both rumors and simple deduction lead one to the obvious conclusion that he can’t stand Charlie Crist. Marco Rubio, whose unabashed conservatism ran Crist out of the party in this year’s Senate campaign, is a Bush prototype. The two men are close.  

Interestingly, Bush on Monday appeared at a fundraiser for Kentucky tea party US Senate candidate Rand Paul. He’s already drawn criticism for it, but you can bet it was a carefully orchestrated strategic move.  

Unsurprisingly to those who know him, Bush has not plunged headlong into the tea party frenzy. For example, he’s expressed reservations about Arizona’s new immigration law. He speaks fluent Spanish and his wife is Mexican-born, both of which helped him to court Latino voters in Florida – and potentially could do the same in a presidential election. Has his eggshell-walking on the Arizona law been a calculation that he can win Latino votes in 2012?

Word is that the Bush family had planned for Jeb to run for president in 2000 instead of George W. But Jeb narrowly lost his first run for Florida governor, then George W. won his first try in Texas. That changed the family strategy, not to mention American history.  

Flaws? Bush is cocky, headstrong and sometimes self-righteous, although that hardly makes him unique among politicians. His marriage is generally rumored to be an unhappy one, and wife Columba’s apparent dislike of politics might create problems.  

His biggest policy blunder as Florida governor was his support for continued governmental intervention to keep brain-damaged Terri Schiavo alive in 2005, in defiance of both the courts and public opinion.  

The Bush last name would be a colossal millstone around the neck of a Jeb presidential candidacy, of course. The best proof of that is that many GOP insiders agree that he would likely be the party’s 2012 frontrunner were his name anything else.  

And yet the other big names have weaknesses too. Sarah Palin has become at least as polarizing as George W. Bush was, and she has neither the intellect nor the executive experience in a large state that Jeb Bush has. Mitt Romney is identified among many Republican faithful with liberal Massachusetts and its floundering attempt at healthcare reform. Polls hint that many people find him oily. Newt Gingrich is brilliant but intensely loathed by many, including much media, for his robotic intellectualism. Mike Huckabee has an air of country-fied non-sophistication about him. Nobody knows who Tim Pawlenty is, although that might possibly end up to his advantage.  

Were Jeb to run, Democrats likely would be bewitched by a combination of overconfidence and righteous indignation that the Republicans would even attempt such an undertaking. Their shrillness in attacking Bush  might become so overwrought as to reach a point of diminishing returns.  

If this reads like some sort of endorsement of Jeb Bush it’s not. His office never gave me the time of day when I was in Tallahassee. (Not that I asked for it.) I’m just telling it like I see it. In my career as a political journalist and analyst, Jeb Bush was  the most capable major elected official I’ve seen. The most effective combination of practical and principled. The case for him screams to be heard.

Will he be the Republican nominee for president in 2012? Probably not, and that’s probably too bad for a Republican Party badly in need of someone with his abilities.     


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