The Magazine

A Future for Brand Bush?

Jeb contemplates a Senate run.

Dec 15, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 13 • By FRED BARNES
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When Mel Martinez reached Jeb Bush last week to tell him that Martinez would shortly announce his decision not to run for reelection to the Senate, Bush expressed no particular interest in succeeding him in Washington. It was early in the morning, and Bush was working out on an exercise machine. Since Martinez's term won't be over until 2010, Bush had plenty of time--months, not weeks--before he'd have to worry about a campaign. But a day later, he told reporters he's considering running.

Bush was wise to disclose his interest. The quick announcement means that no other Republican can gain support for a 2010 Senate race in Florida. Everyone will be waiting for Bush's decision, and the assumption is he's far more likely than not to run. If he does, he will be a strong favorite to win the seat.

Bush's sudden emergence, after two years out of politics, has national significance beyond the possibility he might run for president some day. Republicans, divided and depressed after crushing election losses in 2006 and this year, need unifying leaders with broad appeal. Bush, in his eight years as Florida governor, was popular with all branches of the party. Merely as a candidate, he'd be a focus of Republican attention.

Of course, that's partly because of the question that never goes away: Will Jeb run for president some day? When I interviewed him two years ago in his waning days as Florida governor, I got the impression he wouldn't. "I'm not a big Washington guy," he told me. And when Republican governors met last month in Miami, Bush's hometown, and he didn't bother to drop by, I took that as another sign of his indifference to running for president, ever.

But a Senate bid would signal he at least wants to keep the presidential option open. Bush can't afford to stay on the sidelines if he has any hope of being president. That's why a Senate race makes sense. As a senator, assuming he's elected, he would be a national figure. He would also have a few years to fill the one gap in his political experience: foreign policy.

It's true that Ronald Reagan hadn't held elective office for six years when he won the Republican presidential nomination in 1980. But he was the leader of a movement. Bush doesn't have that status, though he is far closer to Reagan ideologically than almost any prominent Republican today and certainly more Reagan-like than his brother or father.

For the moment, Bush's last name may be a hindrance, but that problem should begin to fade after President George W. Bush, his brother, leaves office next month. And it may evaporate altogether as the differences between Jeb and George become clear.

Bush is a small government conservative who often talks about having a "libertarian gene." Neither his brother nor his father, the elder President George H.W. Bush, has anything of the kind. "There should not be such a thing as a big government Republican," Jeb Bush told Politico after the November election, differentiating himself from his brother in a none-too-subtle way.

He also outlined his view of what Republicans must do to rebuild their party. At the top of the list is not just advocating limited government but practicing it when in office. He also urged Republicans to champion reform, stamp out corruption, and emphasize an agenda to help families.

Most of that is unremarkable. His wide appeal as Florida governor and a national figure is not. It's rare. Bush is a conventional conservative on economics, social issues, and foreign policy. But he's also a reformer, innovator, and policy wonk, and his record in Florida reflects this. One result: Moderates tend to regard Bush favorably.

Bush, in my view, was the best governor in the country. When he left office in 2006, he was rated an excellent or good governor by 57 percent of Floridians in a Quinnipiac poll. That number would be routine for a governor at the start of his term, but for a departing governor it's unusually high.

Even more impressive was his 56 percent rating among independents, a critical voting bloc that has turned decisively against Republicans in the past two elections. A Republican can't win the White House without reversing that trend.

And there's another important aspect to Bush that involves the future of the Republican party. His wife is originally from Mexico, and he speaks Spanish fluently. When he won reelection in 2002, he won the Cuban-American vote overwhelmingly and, more significantly, captured a majority of the non-Cuban Hispanic vote.

Bush is pro-immigrant. He backed the immigration plan of his brother and John McCain that many Republicans rejected. Opposition to immigration reform has not proven to be a vote-getter, quite the contrary. Its chief impact has been to drive away Hispanic voters.