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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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After the election, Bush's life seemed to hover on the edge of collapse. In interviews, he admitted he had neglected his family while running for office. During the campaign, Bush said, his marriage had begun to unravel. One of his children developed a drug problem. Bush publicly pledged to become a better person. He stopped working on Sundays and began going to church regularly. In his spare time, he teamed up with the head of the Miami Urban League to found Florida's first charter school, in Dade County's blighted Liberty City neighborhood. Meanwhile, Bush also started the Foundation for Florida's Future, a nonprofit organization from which he built a new campaign for governor. On Easter eve 1995, he converted to Catholicism.

Bush began the 1998 campaign determined to position himself as a compassionate centrist. While four years earlier he had called for the abolition of the state's department of education, this time Bush chose that department's head, former education commissioner Frank Brogan, as his running mate. Bush visited hundreds of schools, traveled to migrant worker camps, black churches, and other traditionally Democratic campaign venues. He gave speeches in flawless Spanish and waxed enthusiastic about the state's ethnic diversity. He talked constantly about children. He said relatively little about abortion, school prayer, homosexuality, or guns. Voters loved it. His opponent, lieutenant governor Buddy MacKay, slipping in the polls, tried to use Bush's apparent change of heart against him. "We call him the kinder, gentler Bush," said MacKay's campaign manager.

"I call him 'the Bush brother with balls,'" says Mike Murphy, the Republican consultant who produced Bush's advertising. While he did come off as more gentle than he had in 1994, Murphy argues that Bush never became squishy or less committed to conservative ideas. As evidence, Murphy points to Bush's unwavering support for school vouchers, despite polling that showed many voters, including many Republicans, were uncomfortable with the idea. "He could have listened to us political consultants and downplayed vouchers." Instead, Murphy says, "Jeb didn't blink."

He certainly had opportunities to. During the campaign, the state's teachers' union spent more than $ 1 million on ads attacking Bush for his position on vouchers. Days before the election, Hillary Clinton came to Tampa to warn voters about Bush's "risky voucher scheme" (as well as about his efforts to "turn back the clock" on abortion). Thanks in part to his friendly, non-threatening personal style -- Bush didn't seem like the kind of guy who'd want to hurt children with risky schemes -- the attacks bounced off. Bush crushed MacKay at the polls, even winning a remarkable 13 percent of the black vote. (In the end Buddy MacKay became governor for three weeks anyway, when lame duck Lawton Chiles died of heart failure in mid-December while exercising at the governor's mansion. MacKay immediately freed six female murderers from prison on the grounds they were victims of "battered woman syndrome.")

Bush may have kept the faith on vouchers, but he didn't actually use the word. He couldn't, explains Jeanne Allen, a longtime school choice promoter, especially not in front of black or Hispanic audiences. "The word 'voucher' has been so damaged by opponents," says Allen, head of the Center for Education Reform in Washington. "Vouchers equate with free market, equate with conservatives, equate with segregation." No doubt about it, agrees Mike Petrilli of the Manhattan Institute, another professional voucher booster. "Vouchers' as a term is off the table. When people hear the word 'vouchers,' they think of anti-public education. But when you talk about it in terms of 'parental choice,' or 'child-centered education,' or 'money following children to the schools of their choice,' support for the idea goes up and up."