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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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Bush chose "opportunity scholarships" as his trademark euphemism ("'scholarship' sounds like something you get if you do well in school," explains one school choice analyst at a Washington think tank), and even then went out of his way to call attention to other, less controversial elements of his education platform. Bush's "A+ Plan for Education" lists eight separate proposals to improve education in Florida, and it is possible to read the entire list without noticing that vouchers are among them. ("Opportunity scholarships" appear at number six on the roster, sandwiched stealthily between "Up to $ 100 per student bonus for improving and high performing schools" and "Higher standards for educators.") When the voucher bill finally passed on the last day of this year's legislative session, Bush's office issued a press release with a picture of the governor standing next to a Democratic state representative from Miami named Beryl Roberts. Roberts was dressed from head to toe in African clothing, complete with turban and robes. The message was hard to miss: Black people support vouchers -- that is, opportunity scholarships -- too.

In person, Bush is strikingly direct about why he avoids the word "vouchers." "It's like 'Christian Right,' it's like 'extreme Republicans,'" he says. "It's a term that has people in the middle, people who are concerned about their kids, worried. It changes the whole debate. Why not use language that gives people a chance to hear you out? The end result is that we use language that helped us pass the most dynamic and dramatic reform of public education of any state in the country."

Bush is sitting in his "working office," a plain, almost unadorned space about the size of a gas station men's room next door to his ceremonial office. There is what looks like a McDonald's Happy Meal toy on his computer, a Bible next to his mouse pad. Bush, who is in shirt sleeves and cheap-looking rubber-soled shoes, seems as informal as the room. He speaks slowly and in much more complete sentences than his better-known male relatives. He makes a good case for why style should serve substance. Certain symbols, certain words, he says, "create barriers" between a politician and the public whose lives he seeks to improve. Voters, after all, are practical, not ideological. "They want safe streets, they want schools that work. I try to use language that draws them toward my ideas, rather than language that pushes them away." In other words, if the "V-word" causes trouble, discard it. Who cares? It's the improved schools that count.

There's something to this argument, and Bush has done everything possible since the election to reassure "people in the middle" that he is a decent, practical person more interested in results than ideology. Before even taking office, Bush made good on a campaign promise and pushed the state's tomato growers to increase wages paid to migrant farm workers. Tomato pickers got a nickel-a-bucket raise, and Bush became perhaps the first Republican governor in history to be hailed in a newspaper headline as "A Friend to Farm Workers." His inauguration speech a month later contained not a hint of fire or whiff of brimstone. Instead, the man once depicted as a dangerous ideologue urged his fellow citizens to help make Florida "a better neighborhood, a nicer place." "This is our call to arms," he said.

It's easy to mock this rhetoric. (Isn't Florida already a pretty nice place? Since when is it a neighbor-hood?) It's harder to dismiss the results Bush has achieved using it. Florida's voucher program really is the most dramatic education reform in the country. And if you don't believe it, consider what other politicians are offering up as the next Bold New Vision. In Iowa the other day, for example, Al Gore explained his plans for "change" in education. "I'm not talking about slow, piddling changes," Gore said. "I believe we need to really shake things up and have radical, truly revolutionary change in our public schools." At which point, the Wall Street Journal pointed out, Gore proceeded to call "for more computers, smaller class sizes, extra teacher training, and making preschool programs universal" -- "reforms" so conventional it's hard to think of a politician in America who has not already endorsed them. If Gore considers such ideas revolutionary, it's hard to know how he would even categorize what Jeb Bush has just done in Florida.

Bush's stealth conservatism has achieved impressive results. Still, at times it can seem inadequate. During the last session, Republicans in the legislature passed a bill that requires doctors to notify the parents of girls under 18 who seek abortions. Democrats were infuriated by the bill, mostly because they recognized it for what it was -- an attempt by people who think abortion is wrong to curtail abortion. It's all right to abhor abortion and use legal means to fight it. Yet Bush, who has promised to sign the bill, refuses to acknowledge the legislation has anything to do with something so controversial as pro-life sentiment. Instead, he says, the bill grew out of "a parental rights question more than anything else. Why is it so bad to at least give parents the opportunity to love and console? That's our argument."

The problem is, it's not a very powerful argument. If Bush believes abortion is wrong -- and by all accounts he does, strongly -- it would be more effective, if politically difficult, simply to say so. And keep saying so. Old fashioned ideological rhetoric may be ugly and divisive, but it changes minds. Often the inclusive, "nicer place" variety merely soothes them.

Not that a little soothing rhetoric can't be helpful. In fact, Bush's friendliness and warm personality are about the only things standing between him and a totally obstructionist Democratic caucus next legislative session. Democrats left Tallahassee at the end of April angry -- angry at being out-muscled by Republicans, angry that Bush got virtually every piece of legislation he asked for. Among the angriest was Rep. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach. Frankel was particularly miffed by Bush's education plan, which she believes was created and passed by religious extremists. "This is definitely a Christian Right issue," she says darkly. "Just go to the Christian Right Web page and you'll see vouchers are one of their top priorities." (Christian Right Web page? "I don't remember the name of it," she says.)

Frankel is a trial lawyer by training and a notoriously unpleasant person. She is also the new Democratic minority leader in the House. She is, in other words, in a perfect position to cause Jeb Bush a great deal of trouble a year from now. She doesn't sound like she plans to. Frankel doesn't agree with Bush's politics, but she is not out to get him. "He's a very nice man, very congenial, very likable, very charismatic," she says, brightening at the thought. "You could see how he got elected." And how he governs.

Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.