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Jeb Bush Takes on the Education Establishment -- and Wins

May 17, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 33 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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Tallahassee, Florida

The Florida legislature passed Gov. Jeb Bush's education bill on April 30 and the first thing state representative Les Miller could think of was the tragedy at Columbine High School. "A bigger threat than any kid walking into a school with a gun," explained Miller, the minority leader of the Florida House, "is the Republican legislature putting all the schools under siege with vouchers." Betty Holzendorf, a Democratic state senator from Jacksonville, agreed with Miller -- an act of violence had just taken place. "The vouchers in this bill," Holzendorf said gravely, "are the lynchings of the civil rights movements."

It takes a lot to move even Florida state legislators to rhetoric this overheated, but Bush's education bill did it. The legislation creates the country's first statewide voucher program. Children who attend Florida's worst public schools will soon be able to take about $ 4,000 apiece in state money and use it to attend any other school of their choice, including private and religious schools. Supporters of the bill hailed it as a historic breakthrough, a reform that, once it clears the inevitable legal challenges, will revive Florida's ailing public school system, while rescuing thousands of poor children from the crippling effects of an inadequate education. Opponents likened it to mass murder.

Either way, Jeb Bush's voucher bill is a very big deal. It's also wildly insulting -- to the educates and party hacks ("the blob," as William Bennett once described them) who opposed it, to the teachers' unions whose monopoly is threatened by it, to the various Republican governors and state legislators who have tried hard, so far unsuccessfully, to pass similar legislation. All were outdone and out-maneuvered by a 46-year-old with a 12-year-old's name who until six months ago had never been elected to anything.

How did Bush do it? First, by having the good fortune to get elected along with a Republican legislature amenable to his goals. Second, by pushing his voucher plan relentlessly. Third, and probably most important, by appropriating the style of his ideological enemies. Jeb Bush is as conservative as any governor in America, and much more so than most. But you'd never know it unless you listened carefully, or took a close look at the bills he supports. If Bush's legislation is radical, his tone is all accommodation and empathy. Not at all scary. And therefore quite effective. It's a useful trick. Cynics say he picked it up from watching Bill Clinton. More likely, it's a lesson he learned during his first campaign for governor.

Long involved with conservative foundations and causes, Bush entered the 1994 campaign with a reputation as -- depending on how it was being spun -- either a straight-shooting man of ideas or a hard-edged ideologue. His opponents made the case for ideologue, and Bush gave them plenty of ammunition. During the primary that year, Bush gave a speech in which he said that welfare mothers "should be able to get their life together and find a husband." One of the other Republicans in the race promptly ran ads accusing Bush of being insensitive to women. Bush complained that his remarks had been taken out of context, but the caricature of Bush as a wild-eyed right-winger stuck. "He has no track record, no consequential public service, and his ideas are shallow and radical," pronounced the St. Petersburg Times.

Bush's opponent in the general election, incumbent governor Lawton Chiles, kept the wound fresh. Chiles, who himself had become rich from his investments in the Red Lobster restaurant chain, slammed Bush as a wealthy dilettante with extreme, even dangerous plans for the state of Florida, very much including school vouchers. As proof of his ideological looniness, Chiles often pointed to Bush's running mate, a conservative state representative named Tom Feeney. Though there was no evidence Feeney had ever uttered a racist word, Chiles denounced the aspiring lieutenant governor as "the David Duke of Florida politics." By the time the Chiles campaign spread word that Bush wanted to eliminate Social Security, many voters were frightened enough to believe it. In November, while Republicans in the rest of the country were having the most successful year in memory, Bush lost to Chiles by less than 70,000 votes.