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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Democrats in Florida oppose many of Bush's policies, but they recognize his clout. "In this state, he is the guy," House Democratic leader Dan Gelber told Wil S. Hylton of GQ magazine. "Everybody else is not even in the ballpark. He's a rock star."

His popularity, too, has remained at an impressive level. In a Quinnipiac survey last month in Florida, his job approval was 55 percent, while President Bush's was in the mid-30s. "How can a governor in his eighth year in a competitive state have an approval rating of 55 percent?" asks Quinnipiac analyst Peter Brown. "It's pretty remarkable. Jeb dominates Florida politics even in his eighth year."

JEB BUSH, however, will not be a candidate for president in 2008. For months now, he's made that plain to everyone who asks, including me. Plus, "he's not making any moves" to run, strategist Murphy says. "It isn't the time or the year or the environment."

Nor is Bush likely to accept an offer to be the vice presidential running mate of the Republican presidential nominee, though he'd be a smart choice. After Senator John McCain, the Republican frontrunner in 2008, visited Bush here this spring, rumors of a deal spread: Bush would back McCain for the nomination in exchange for being his vice presidential pick. As far as I can tell, that's not true.

Bush, though, had extremely kind words for McCain when I talked to him a few weeks after his session with the Arizona senator. "I like McCain," he said. "I like the fact that he doesn't like pork. I'm upset with Washington and this passionate defense of overspending, as though there's a clamoring in the land to do this."

Bush had one piece of advice for McCain. It went like this: "Really try to relate to the [Republican] base. Our base is really the heartbeat of America. Make an effort to understand what their aspirations are and to show respect to them. . . . Those are people of faith, middle-class people, small business owners. I think sometimes the people in Washington just kind of forget who gets them elected."

There's no chance Jeb Bush will come to Washington, either, especially to work for his brother. "I'm not a big Washington guy," he says. "I just compare it with what goes on in the state capital. It seems much less productive and more bitter." Besides, Jeb and his brother have had a rivalry for years. During a discussion of policy ideas after George Bush was elected Texas governor, George interrupted Stephen Goldsmith, who'd lost a campaign for governor of Indiana, to nick Jeb. "You'd like my brother," he said. "You both forgot you have to win before you can govern."

Friends of Jeb compare him favorably with his brother, but they're wary of doing it on the record. One former Republican governor insisted that Jeb Bush "is far more gifted than his brother or his father," the elder President Bush. A consultant who knows both Jeb and George says, "Jeb is excellent and George is above average."

The conventional wisdom is that Jeb is the smart one who thinks through issues, and George is merely savvy and acts on instinct. That's a media myth. Both think alot before they act. And they agree on many things. JebBush has visited Iraq and backs the policy there. He agrees with his brother on immigration and taxes and soon.

But there are significant differences, so many that conservative activist Grover Norquist says, "Jeb Bush is adopted." There's no "genetic mix" with his father or his brother, according to Norquist. He is joking, of course, to highlight the ideological gap between Jeb and the Bush family. Jeb Bush is a small government conservative. He was feted in Washington in 2003 by the libertarian Cato Institute and talks about having a "libertarian gene." President Bush has no such gene. He's what I call a strong government conservative and others refer to as a big government conservative. True, President Bush is closer ideologically to President Reagan than to his father, a moderate. But Jeb Bush is closer to Reagan than his brother is.

Jeb has vetoed hundreds of spending measures. His friends are not immune to his veto knife. Bush and Mel Martinez were good friends in 1999 when Martinez, then an Orange County (Orlando) official and now a U.S. senator, got the legislature to approve funding for a transportation project. Bush "vetoed the damn thing," Martinez says. "He's legendary for that. He does it to his best friends." In contrast, President Bush is legendary for not vetoing a single spending bill.

While President Bush is a visionary, Jeb Bush is a policy wonk with a flair for details and has been for years. Brian Yablonski, then a law student, volunteered to help Bush during his wilderness years between the 1994 and 1998 elections. His first assignment was to collect Republican Governors Association policy papers and analyze them for Bush.