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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"A lot of people criticize President Bush for not knowing the ins and outs of government," Quinnipiac's Brown says. "They'd never say that about Jeb." Rather, they talk about his command of the intricacies of policy. Stephen Moore, now with the Wall Street Journal, joined Bush at the emergency center here during a hurricane in 2004. Bush took time out for a chat, but not for small talk. "Let's talk about these education initiatives," he said.

Bush treats his aides and advisers in an unusual way for a governor: He actually listens to them, even defers to them. In 2003, he brought Frank Keating, who had just stepped down as governor of Oklahoma, to the capitol to talk about getting an agenda through a hostile legislature. Keating was impressed by Bush's humility, rare among politicians.

The governor and his staff sat around a table. After Keating spoke, a dialogue among Keating, Bush, and the aides occurred. Keating was amazed. When a top elected official is involved, "the hardest thing is to get a dialogue going," Keating says. "Most political leaders are monologue people."

Not Bush. He brought Alan Levine, his health adviser, to Washington with him last January to talk to reporters and health experts about Medicaid reform. He constantly deferred to Levine to amplify his plans. Grace-Marie Turner of the Galen Institute, a sponsor of the seminar, was awed. "Jeb Bush attracts good staff because they know they'll be listened to."

As a hands-on governor, Bush is a workaholic. He's a chronic emailer, sometimes sending hundreds in a day. Moore once got an email from Bush at 2 a.m. His aides tried to stop him from communicating too much and with too many people. They wanted to protect him from jotting down something that might later be used against him. "I'm not a protectable guy," Bush said. "Don't bother."

What will Bush do when he steps down? He says he doesn't know. "It dawned on me about a month ago that I have not taken 10 days off since I got married 32 years ago," he told me. "I got married on a Saturday, went back to work and school on Monday. Since that time I've not taken more than 10 days off."

Whatever he does in the short run will be easier than governing Florida. It's really four different states: the southeast coast (Miami, Palm Beach), the retiree-bloated southwest, the I-4 corridor across the center (Orlando), and northern Florida (Jacksonville) and the panhandle. Florida is a huge agricultural state, dependent on tourism and faced with an unrelieved flood of immigrants--all this plus hurricanes.

Bush has some distinct advantages, the biggest being an overwhelmingly Republican legislature that mostly goes along with his wishes. And in 2000, term limits on legislators clicked in, removing old bulls who might mount opposition to Bush. His personality is helpful, too. He is more like his genial father than his more judgmental mother.

From his 1994 election loss, he learned how to project his charm and likability. Defeat "made Jeb a better political leader," says Peter Schweizer, coauthor of The Bushes: Portrait of a Dynasty and a Tallahassee resident. "He was pretty cocky in '94. The loss humbled him and made him more effective and sympathetic."

Bush basically agrees. "I learned that you need to share who you are," he says. "I was young and idealistic and pretty fiery and full of what I thought were really interesting ideas. But most people kind of wanted to know who I was and what made me tick. That's not an easy thing for a Bush to do, by the way. Our upbringing was such that we're not supposed to share our emotions or who we are. That's kind of '90s, a newer thing. It took a little doing for me to get comfortable with it."

His governorship has hardly been trouble-free. In dismissing Bush as a mediocre "celebrity" governor, Time magazine said "at times, basic competence has been an issue" for him. This is nonsense. Time may have been blinded by its distaste for Bush's conservatism and his last name. "My guess is that I'm one of the three or four most conservative governors in the country," he says. He's not only a limited government conservative, but a social and religious conservative as well. He converted to Catholicism a decade ago.

Bush has been zinged for his role in the 2000 presidential recount in Florida, but media examinations of the voting ratified George W. Bush's victory in the state. He tried and failed to put a school voucher referendum on the ballot this fall. His effort to include colleges in a "seamless K-20" system was unsuccessful. He fought a referendum to restrict school class size and lost. And there was the Terri Schiavo case.

Schiavo was a brain-damaged woman whose husband wanted to remove her feeding tube, thus starving her to death. Her parents sought to keep her alive, and Bush intervened in their behalf. The case touched off a national controversy. Courts ruled in favor of the husband, and Terri Schiavo died.

"Do I have regrets?" Bush says. "I have regrets that she died. I don't have regrets standing on principle. . . . This was removing food and nourishment from a woman who did not have a living will, and I think it's appropriate to err on the side of life and not have a disregard for someone who is disabled. A lot of my friends have a different point of view." Senator Mel Martinez, for one, says Bush got more deeply involved in the case than he would have.

Conservatives obviously have few complaints about Bush beyond his opposition to offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Grover Norquist, who has tried to persuade Bush to run for president in 2008, groused that Bush hasn't anointed a successor as governor who shares his views. "It's a quibble, given he's the best governor in the country," says Norquist.

For sure, Bush's achievements exceed his failures. Let's review his record:

* Political leadership: Florida was a weak-governor state when Bush arrived. No more. It had cabinet government with six elected state officials besides the governor. Now the cabinet has been reduced to three members plus Bush, and power is not shared equally. Bush rules. He removed the bar association from a role in naming judges and now controls the selection process. He also eliminated the state board of regents, took control of the board of every public university, and gained the right to name the state education commissioner. And he's changed the policy debate from how much government can do to how much it should leave to the people and the free market. "That's his greatest effect," says Robert McClure of the Bush-friendly James Madison Institute in Tallahassee.

* The economy: It's bursting at the seams. Florida is no longer totally reliant on tourism, agriculture, and the retiree industry. Under Bush, Florida has become the fourth largest high-tech state. Its bond rating has been hiked to Triple A. The economy, in Bush's words, was "knocked for a jolt" by 9/11. He "went out to shamelessly promote" tourism, and state construction projects were accelerated. It worked. He stubbornly fought a high-speed train connecting Miami, Orlando, and Tampa. It was approved in a 2000 referendum, only to be rejected in 2004 at Bush's urging.

* Taxes: Bush has slashed $20 billion in taxes over eight years and enjoys the heartburn this gives the media and liberals. "I do love it," he says. "Prior to my arrival, there may have been a tax cut or two, but normally the way to solve problems was to raise taxes." This year, the legislature killed what Bush calls "the evil, insidious intangibles tax" on stocks and bonds. His tax cuts are all the more shocking in a state with no income tax but with a balanced budget requirement.

* Education: Bush's education reforms have been vindicated by scholarly studies. Jay Greene and Marcus Winters of the Manhattan Institute found testing to end social promotion in Florida schools had led to "substantial academic gains for low-performing schools." A Harvard study concluded the stigma of poor student performance and the threat of vouchers caused schools to improve. The test scores of African-American and poor students rose significantly. One example: The percentage of African-American fourth graders reading at grade level doubled to 56 percent from 1999 to 2005.

* Medicaid: Bush's bold experiment, due to begin in less than a month, has important national implications. In Broward and Duval counties, Medicaid recipients will choose among 19 insurance plans. The program provides incentives to change behavior by quitting smoking, seeking preventive care, and getting dental exams. The aim is not to cut the cost of Medicaid but to slow its staggering growth: Florida's Medicaid budget jumped from $7 billion in 1999 to $16 billion in 2006. If the Florida test succeeds, other states will follow.

* Hurricanes: Bush is regularly consulted by governors on how to handle natural disasters and emergencies. What does he tell them? "My advice has been to be humble but strong," he told me. "Emergencies are not about politics. . . . Giving transparent, clear information on a timely basis is expected because people are expecting strong leadership. I also have suggested that it is important to act decisively and worry about filling out the forms later."

That advice was sent to me when I tested Bush's habit of answering email. In my emailed note, I asked him two questions, about his advice to governors and his take on political dynasties. I'd been told he doesn't look kindly on dynasties, though his grandfather was a senator and his father and brother presidents.

"I don't think Americans buy into the dynasty scenario," he emailed back four and a half hours later. "I think you might be hearing that I am not big on talking about dynasties since I don't think they reflect the reason for my granddad, father, and brother's public service. It is not the motivating factor. There are no dinner table talks about it. There are no emails about it. There are [no] calls about it. It is not who we are."

What does this tell us about Bush's political future? We know he's not running for president in 2008. But what about 2012 or 2016? He seems disinclined. Unlike his brother, Jeb Bush is a man who left the family fold and succeeded splendidly in a state where the Bushes had never been ensconced. That alone is a remarkable personal achievement. And maybe it's achievement enough for JebBush.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard and author of Rebel-in-Chief, about the presidency of George W. Bush.