The Magazine

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Jeb Bush is riding high.

Apr 28, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 32 • By STEPHEN MOORE
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Tallahassee, Florida

AS I'M USHERED into Jeb Bush's office in the state capitol, I'm struck by two things. First, how cramped it is in here: A midlevel bureaucrat in Washington would be insulted to have an office this skimpy. Second, how big Jeb is: He's a lot taller and broader than his more famous brother. This guy could postup Bill Clinton. And in politics, height is a definite advantage. Anyway, as we sit with two of his aides talking about the state's fiscal crisis and the governor's political philosophy, our knees are practically knocking into each other for lack of space. Later it occurs to me that Jeb's cubby-hole office is symbolic of the state government he is hell-bent on trying to create in Florida: lean, functional, and without extravagance. "Our intention is to clear away all the governmental obstacles to creating prosperity in this state," he assures me. "That's our mission."

Although he is just beginning his second term after a lopsided victory over Democrat Bill McBride, the Florida governor has accomplished a lot of that mission already. The state budget has grown only modestly, despite a heavy influx of immigrants and tax refugees from the Northeast. Bush has cut business and property taxes by $1.8 billion--no meager achievement given that Florida is already a low-tax state and one of only nine without an income tax. The economy's performing well: Although Florida was hit especially hard by 9/11, thanks to its large tourist business, it is currently creating new jobs at a faster rate than any of the other 10 largest states. There have been non-economic victories too: Bush has launched one of the most successful and acclaimed school-choice projects in the country. And two years ago Bush torched the Florida trial lawyers by signing one of the most pro-consumer tort reform laws in the nation. No wonder he's rated one of the two best governors in America--Bill Owens of Colorado is the other--on the Cato Institute Fiscal Report Card.

In short, Jeb Bush is riding high in the saddle. He'd be sizzling hot even if he weren't the son and brother of presidents. Though Jeb loathes any such comparisons, his policy record is light-years more impressive than George W.'s was in Texas at a similar stage in his career. W. governed in Austin as if his administration were a basketball team clinging to a four-point lead in the fourth quarter. Jeb's whirlwind pace of gutsy policy initiatives in Tallahassee is more like a team that's down with two minutes to go. He wants big plays. "Jeb is first and foremost a policy entrepreneur," beams former Florida House speaker Tom Feeney, now a congressman. "Among all the governors, he's this generation's Tommy Thompson." Oh, and unlike his brother, Jeb doesn't boast about things like being "misunderestimated"--in English or in Spanish.

It's not for nothing that the third son of George and Barbara Bush is the odds-on favorite to be the Republican presidential nominee in 2008. And yet, Jeb remains something of a mystery. Which is what brings me to Tallahassee. I'm here to find out what America's fastest political comet actually believes. Is he a compassionate conservative or a Barry Goldwater anti-big government libertarian? When I ask him this very question via e-mail (his favorite form of communication), he answers, "I suppose I'm more of a compassionate conservative." But that's far from the whole story.

On the one hand, Jeb is a bully-pulpit social conservative. He's unapologetically pro-life. He talks incessantly about resurrecting and strengthening the family. The urgency of this message may well be related to his daughter's highly publicized drug problems and the pain this has brought to his own loved ones. And his rhetoric has become markedly more spiritual of late. Take this passage from his inaugural speech in January:

While I am the one who takes this oath of office today, when we leave this place your responsibility is as sacred as mine: Through our example and our deeds we should strive to shape our society through kindness and caring. In our businesses we should give moms and dads time to be parents with children. In our hectic daily lives, we should fiercely guard a time for selflessly helping the most vulnerable and needy. In our private moments alone, we should reflect on our unearned gifts and rededicate our lives to those around us. In a thousand ways we can be more accepting, more giving, more compassionate.

There's that blasted word again, which has recently supplanted liberty as the GOP's guiding star. But even when he talks about strengthening families, the governor says he wants it done through a renewal of personal responsibility, and not by creating new bureaucracies. As if to punctuate this point, Jeb says his goal is to "embed in society a sense of caring that makes government less necessary."