The Magazine

Governor in Chief

Jeb Bush's remarkable eight years of achievement in Florida.

Jun 12, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 37 • By FRED BARNES
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Tallahassee

IF ONLY HIS LAST NAME WERE SMITH. He'd not only attract national attention as the popular and successful governor of a difficult-to-govern state. He'd be viewed sympathetically as a leader who had dealt with family issues--his wife's aversion to politics, his daughter's bouts with drug addiction--without losing his grip on the governorship. And he'd be the prohibitive frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.

But his last name is Bush. So Jeb Bush, nearing the end of his eight years as governor of Florida, has to settle for being the best governor in America. Not proclaimed the best governor by the media and the political community. But recognized as the best by a smaller group: governors who served with him and experts and think-tank and conservative policy wonks who regard state government as something other than a machine for taxing and spending.

Why is Jeb Bush the best? It's very simple. His record is the best. No other governor, Republican or Democrat, comes close. Donna Arduin, perhaps the most respected state budget expert in the country, has worked for four big-state Republican governors--John Engler of Michigan, George Pataki of New York, Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, and Bush. Even while she worked for Schwarzenegger, she told me Bush is "absolutely" the nation's premier governor. "He's principled, brilliant, willing to ignore his pollsters, and say no to his friends," she says.

Engler, now head of the National Association of Manufacturers, knows Jeb Bush well and has watched the course of his governorship. He says flatly: "Jeb Bush is the finest governor in the country." Jim Gilmore, the ex-governor of Virginia, declines to rank governors. But he says Bush, as governor of a big state, "had a big challenge and he met it."

In a state with a surging population, Bush has presided over a booming economy with the highest rate of job creation in the country and an unemployment rate of 3.0 percent (the national average is 4.6 percent). Florida has no state income tax, but Bush has nonetheless found a way to cut taxes every year of the eight he's been in office. Meanwhile, he's trimmed the state employment rolls by 11,000.

"Politics is a game for risk takers," says Mike Murphy, a political strategist for Bush and other governors, including Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Schwarzenegger. And Bush is an extraordinary risk taker and innovator. He's made Florida, in the jargon of bipartisan experts, a "laboratory of democracy." He's mined state and local think tanks for ideas that might streamline state government and make it more effective.

He's the first governor to impose stringent testing and accountability on Florida elementary and secondary schools, along with three voucher programs, the most ambitious of which was struck down this year by the (liberal and majority Democratic) state supreme court. This achievement went beyond the No Child Left Behind program of his brother, President Bush, who dropped vouchers in a compromise with Democrats in 2001.

On health care, no governor has attacked Medicaid, whose costs are swamping state budgets, more boldly than Bush. He wangled a breathtakingly broad waiver from the federal Department of Health and Human Services to privatize Medicaid in two populous counties, Duval (Jacksonville) and Broward (Fort Lauderdale). The new program, affecting more than 200,000 Medicaid recipients, goes into effect July 1.

Two more things. Bush, after handling eight hurricanes and four tropical storms in 14 months in 2004 and 2005, has become the undisputed national leader in emergency management. Imagine if he had been governor of Louisiana when Katrina hit last summer. Does anyone doubt that the recovery would have gone far, far better with Bush in charge?

A key to success as a governor is forceful political leadership. Bush, in fact, has been the dominant figure in the Republican party in Florida since 1994, when he lost his first bid for governor to Democrat Lawton Chiles. That allowed his brother George, who won an upset victory for governor of Texas the same year, to get a leg up on Jeb in pursuit of the presidency.

But Jeb Bush has turned out to be the superior governor of the two. He's the most powerful chief executive in Florida in modern times and has had a positive impact on the state in almost every conceivable way--economically, fiscally, educationally, politically, and the list could go on and on. Bush says Florida is a "purple" state, a mixture of Republican red and Democratic blue. But when he departs Tallahassee for his hometown of Miami next January 1, he will leave Republicans in a vastly stronger position than they dreamed possible when he took office in 1999.