Our first national government—the one established by the Articles of Confederation—was notoriously weak. Congress wasn’t much good at administering the laws it passed or at conducting foreign affairs. The government lacked what the Framers of the Constitution said it sorely needed: energy. As James Madison explained in Federalist 37, “[E]nergy in government is essential to that security against external and internal danger and to that prompt and salutary execution of the laws which enter into the very definition of good government.”
At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, the Framers sought to remedy that critical defect. They did so by creating the presidency, which, because of its structure and powers, would provide the necessary energy. Thus, Alexander Hamilton’s famous pronouncement: “Energy in the executive is a leading character of good government.”
The “conservative hurricane” referred to in the title of this book is, of course, the governor who “remade Florida,” Jeb Bush. Florida, which entered the Union in 1845, has had a long tradition of weak executives; Bush, who served two terms from 1999 to 2007, was not one of them. Moreover, he is proud of his repudiation of that tradition—proud, if you will, of his energetic tenure. “I believe a weak form of governorship is not appropriate for a dynamic state like Florida,” he observed shortly before leaving office. “My gift perhaps is that with this office now, we’ve shown that governors can be activist, they can be reformers if they want to.”
Bush was elected to an office that, in the preceding decades, had been formally strengthened, with the most recent change (by constitutional amendment approved by the voters in 1998) downsizing the cabinet form of government that had been in place since the end of Reconstruction. As this treatment of Bush’s two terms shows, the governor used his structurally more powerful office in ways the Framers would have understood.
The Federalist describes the presidential office as one from which a president may undertake “extensive and arduous enterprises” for the country’s benefit, the efficacy of which (assuming their constitutionality) the people may judge at the ballot box. Likewise, a governor sufficiently empowered should be in a position to pursue such enterprises for the good of his state. In Bush’s case, the most ambitious of several major undertakings concerned education. As Matthew T. Corrigan observes, Bush sought not only to reform various policies but also to change the entire educational system, which assumed (falsely, in his view) that socioeconomic background determines school performance.
The Federalist also identifies how the energetic president should act for the sake of good government: with “dispatch,” “vigor,” “expedition,” “decision,” “promptitude of decision,” and “firmness.” Those are behavioral characteristics. It stands to reason that they would be evident in an energetic governor: From the information assembled here, Governor Bush often showed vigor, expedition, firmness, and more.
Of course, to act with vigor or firmness does not mean that a given action is correct or will succeed. Consider the heart-wrenching case of Terri Schiavo. In no matter was Bush as firm as he was in his effort to keep Schiavo alive by seeking to prevent the removal of her feeding tube. Yet with all options exhausted, not just at the state level but also the federal, Bush concluded that he could not disobey a court order permitting the removal—and thus, Terri Schiavo’s death.
As governor, Jeb Bush had a political compass, and it was definitely a conservative one, says Corrigan. That’s not surprising, given the influence of the modern conservative movement on Bush, which Corrigan chronicles in some detail. Against the perception offered by “some national commentators” (as well as some Tea Partiers) that Bush is really a “moderate,” Corrigan says that Bush’s record as governor of Florida is “a direct refutation of that description.”
It’s hard to argue with his assessment. As Corrigan shows, Bush secured record tax cuts, eliminated thousands of public-sector jobs while expanding private contracting of state services, broadened the rights of gun owners (he “methodically and completely changed gun regulation”), reduced the number of abortion “providers,” and ended racial preferences in admissions to institutions of higher education (standing firm when the liberal civil rights lobby protested). As for education reform, his most important undertaking, Bush initiated massive changes in K-12 education premised on testing and accountability.