The Florida legislature passed Gov. Jeb Bush's education bill on April 30 and the first thing state representative Les Miller could think of was the tragedy at Columbine High School. "A bigger threat than any kid walking into a school with a gun," explained Miller, the minority leader of the Florida House, "is the Republican legislature putting all the schools under siege with vouchers." Betty Holzendorf, a Democratic state senator from Jacksonville, agreed with Miller -- an act of violence had just taken place. "The vouchers in this bill," Holzendorf said gravely, "are the lynchings of the civil rights movements."
It takes a lot to move even Florida state legislators to rhetoric this overheated, but Bush's education bill did it. The legislation creates the country's first statewide voucher program. Children who attend Florida's worst public schools will soon be able to take about $ 4,000 apiece in state money and use it to attend any other school of their choice, including private and religious schools. Supporters of the bill hailed it as a historic breakthrough, a reform that, once it clears the inevitable legal challenges, will revive Florida's ailing public school system, while rescuing thousands of poor children from the crippling effects of an inadequate education. Opponents likened it to mass murder.
Either way, Jeb Bush's voucher bill is a very big deal. It's also wildly insulting -- to the educates and party hacks ("the blob," as William Bennett once described them) who opposed it, to the teachers' unions whose monopoly is threatened by it, to the various Republican governors and state legislators who have tried hard, so far unsuccessfully, to pass similar legislation. All were outdone and out-maneuvered by a 46-year-old with a 12-year-old's name who until six months ago had never been elected to anything.
How did Bush do it? First, by having the good fortune to get elected along with a Republican legislature amenable to his goals. Second, by pushing his voucher plan relentlessly. Third, and probably most important, by appropriating the style of his ideological enemies. Jeb Bush is as conservative as any governor in America, and much more so than most. But you'd never know it unless you listened carefully, or took a close look at the bills he supports. If Bush's legislation is radical, his tone is all accommodation and empathy. Not at all scary. And therefore quite effective. It's a useful trick. Cynics say he picked it up from watching Bill Clinton. More likely, it's a lesson he learned during his first campaign for governor.
Long involved with conservative foundations and causes, Bush entered the 1994 campaign with a reputation as -- depending on how it was being spun -- either a straight-shooting man of ideas or a hard-edged ideologue. His opponents made the case for ideologue, and Bush gave them plenty of ammunition. During the primary that year, Bush gave a speech in which he said that welfare mothers "should be able to get their life together and find a husband." One of the other Republicans in the race promptly ran ads accusing Bush of being insensitive to women. Bush complained that his remarks had been taken out of context, but the caricature of Bush as a wild-eyed right-winger stuck. "He has no track record, no consequential public service, and his ideas are shallow and radical," pronounced the St. Petersburg Times.
Bush's opponent in the general election, incumbent governor Lawton Chiles, kept the wound fresh. Chiles, who himself had become rich from his investments in the Red Lobster restaurant chain, slammed Bush as a wealthy dilettante with extreme, even dangerous plans for the state of Florida, very much including school vouchers. As proof of his ideological looniness, Chiles often pointed to Bush's running mate, a conservative state representative named Tom Feeney. Though there was no evidence Feeney had ever uttered a racist word, Chiles denounced the aspiring lieutenant governor as "the David Duke of Florida politics." By the time the Chiles campaign spread word that Bush wanted to eliminate Social Security, many voters were frightened enough to believe it. In November, while Republicans in the rest of the country were having the most successful year in memory, Bush lost to Chiles by less than 70,000 votes.
After the election, Bush's life seemed to hover on the edge of collapse. In interviews, he admitted he had neglected his family while running for office. During the campaign, Bush said, his marriage had begun to unravel. One of his children developed a drug problem. Bush publicly pledged to become a better person. He stopped working on Sundays and began going to church regularly. In his spare time, he teamed up with the head of the Miami Urban League to found Florida's first charter school, in Dade County's blighted Liberty City neighborhood. Meanwhile, Bush also started the Foundation for Florida's Future, a nonprofit organization from which he built a new campaign for governor. On Easter eve 1995, he converted to Catholicism.
Bush began the 1998 campaign determined to position himself as a compassionate centrist. While four years earlier he had called for the abolition of the state's department of education, this time Bush chose that department's head, former education commissioner Frank Brogan, as his running mate. Bush visited hundreds of schools, traveled to migrant worker camps, black churches, and other traditionally Democratic campaign venues. He gave speeches in flawless Spanish and waxed enthusiastic about the state's ethnic diversity. He talked constantly about children. He said relatively little about abortion, school prayer, homosexuality, or guns. Voters loved it. His opponent, lieutenant governor Buddy MacKay, slipping in the polls, tried to use Bush's apparent change of heart against him. "We call him the kinder, gentler Bush," said MacKay's campaign manager.
"I call him 'the Bush brother with balls,'" says Mike Murphy, the Republican consultant who produced Bush's advertising. While he did come off as more gentle than he had in 1994, Murphy argues that Bush never became squishy or less committed to conservative ideas. As evidence, Murphy points to Bush's unwavering support for school vouchers, despite polling that showed many voters, including many Republicans, were uncomfortable with the idea. "He could have listened to us political consultants and downplayed vouchers." Instead, Murphy says, "Jeb didn't blink."
He certainly had opportunities to. During the campaign, the state's teachers' union spent more than $ 1 million on ads attacking Bush for his position on vouchers. Days before the election, Hillary Clinton came to Tampa to warn voters about Bush's "risky voucher scheme" (as well as about his efforts to "turn back the clock" on abortion). Thanks in part to his friendly, non-threatening personal style -- Bush didn't seem like the kind of guy who'd want to hurt children with risky schemes -- the attacks bounced off. Bush crushed MacKay at the polls, even winning a remarkable 13 percent of the black vote. (In the end Buddy MacKay became governor for three weeks anyway, when lame duck Lawton Chiles died of heart failure in mid-December while exercising at the governor's mansion. MacKay immediately freed six female murderers from prison on the grounds they were victims of "battered woman syndrome.")
Bush may have kept the faith on vouchers, but he didn't actually use the word. He couldn't, explains Jeanne Allen, a longtime school choice promoter, especially not in front of black or Hispanic audiences. "The word 'voucher' has been so damaged by opponents," says Allen, head of the Center for Education Reform in Washington. "Vouchers equate with free market, equate with conservatives, equate with segregation." No doubt about it, agrees Mike Petrilli of the Manhattan Institute, another professional voucher booster. "Vouchers' as a term is off the table. When people hear the word 'vouchers,' they think of anti-public education. But when you talk about it in terms of 'parental choice,' or 'child-centered education,' or 'money following children to the schools of their choice,' support for the idea goes up and up."
Bush chose "opportunity scholarships" as his trademark euphemism ("'scholarship' sounds like something you get if you do well in school," explains one school choice analyst at a Washington think tank), and even then went out of his way to call attention to other, less controversial elements of his education platform. Bush's "A+ Plan for Education" lists eight separate proposals to improve education in Florida, and it is possible to read the entire list without noticing that vouchers are among them. ("Opportunity scholarships" appear at number six on the roster, sandwiched stealthily between "Up to $ 100 per student bonus for improving and high performing schools" and "Higher standards for educators.") When the voucher bill finally passed on the last day of this year's legislative session, Bush's office issued a press release with a picture of the governor standing next to a Democratic state representative from Miami named Beryl Roberts. Roberts was dressed from head to toe in African clothing, complete with turban and robes. The message was hard to miss: Black people support vouchers -- that is, opportunity scholarships -- too.
In person, Bush is strikingly direct about why he avoids the word "vouchers." "It's like 'Christian Right,' it's like 'extreme Republicans,'" he says. "It's a term that has people in the middle, people who are concerned about their kids, worried. It changes the whole debate. Why not use language that gives people a chance to hear you out? The end result is that we use language that helped us pass the most dynamic and dramatic reform of public education of any state in the country."
Bush is sitting in his "working office," a plain, almost unadorned space about the size of a gas station men's room next door to his ceremonial office. There is what looks like a McDonald's Happy Meal toy on his computer, a Bible next to his mouse pad. Bush, who is in shirt sleeves and cheap-looking rubber-soled shoes, seems as informal as the room. He speaks slowly and in much more complete sentences than his better-known male relatives. He makes a good case for why style should serve substance. Certain symbols, certain words, he says, "create barriers" between a politician and the public whose lives he seeks to improve. Voters, after all, are practical, not ideological. "They want safe streets, they want schools that work. I try to use language that draws them toward my ideas, rather than language that pushes them away." In other words, if the "V-word" causes trouble, discard it. Who cares? It's the improved schools that count.
There's something to this argument, and Bush has done everything possible since the election to reassure "people in the middle" that he is a decent, practical person more interested in results than ideology. Before even taking office, Bush made good on a campaign promise and pushed the state's tomato growers to increase wages paid to migrant farm workers. Tomato pickers got a nickel-a-bucket raise, and Bush became perhaps the first Republican governor in history to be hailed in a newspaper headline as "A Friend to Farm Workers." His inauguration speech a month later contained not a hint of fire or whiff of brimstone. Instead, the man once depicted as a dangerous ideologue urged his fellow citizens to help make Florida "a better neighborhood, a nicer place." "This is our call to arms," he said.
It's easy to mock this rhetoric. (Isn't Florida already a pretty nice place? Since when is it a neighbor-hood?) It's harder to dismiss the results Bush has achieved using it. Florida's voucher program really is the most dramatic education reform in the country. And if you don't believe it, consider what other politicians are offering up as the next Bold New Vision. In Iowa the other day, for example, Al Gore explained his plans for "change" in education. "I'm not talking about slow, piddling changes," Gore said. "I believe we need to really shake things up and have radical, truly revolutionary change in our public schools." At which point, the Wall Street Journal pointed out, Gore proceeded to call "for more computers, smaller class sizes, extra teacher training, and making preschool programs universal" -- "reforms" so conventional it's hard to think of a politician in America who has not already endorsed them. If Gore considers such ideas revolutionary, it's hard to know how he would even categorize what Jeb Bush has just done in Florida.
Bush's stealth conservatism has achieved impressive results. Still, at times it can seem inadequate. During the last session, Republicans in the legislature passed a bill that requires doctors to notify the parents of girls under 18 who seek abortions. Democrats were infuriated by the bill, mostly because they recognized it for what it was -- an attempt by people who think abortion is wrong to curtail abortion. It's all right to abhor abortion and use legal means to fight it. Yet Bush, who has promised to sign the bill, refuses to acknowledge the legislation has anything to do with something so controversial as pro-life sentiment. Instead, he says, the bill grew out of "a parental rights question more than anything else. Why is it so bad to at least give parents the opportunity to love and console? That's our argument."
The problem is, it's not a very powerful argument. If Bush believes abortion is wrong -- and by all accounts he does, strongly -- it would be more effective, if politically difficult, simply to say so. And keep saying so. Old fashioned ideological rhetoric may be ugly and divisive, but it changes minds. Often the inclusive, "nicer place" variety merely soothes them.
Not that a little soothing rhetoric can't be helpful. In fact, Bush's friendliness and warm personality are about the only things standing between him and a totally obstructionist Democratic caucus next legislative session. Democrats left Tallahassee at the end of April angry -- angry at being out-muscled by Republicans, angry that Bush got virtually every piece of legislation he asked for. Among the angriest was Rep. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach. Frankel was particularly miffed by Bush's education plan, which she believes was created and passed by religious extremists. "This is definitely a Christian Right issue," she says darkly. "Just go to the Christian Right Web page and you'll see vouchers are one of their top priorities." (Christian Right Web page? "I don't remember the name of it," she says.)
Frankel is a trial lawyer by training and a notoriously unpleasant person. She is also the new Democratic minority leader in the House. She is, in other words, in a perfect position to cause Jeb Bush a great deal of trouble a year from now. She doesn't sound like she plans to. Frankel doesn't agree with Bush's politics, but she is not out to get him. "He's a very nice man, very congenial, very likable, very charismatic," she says, brightening at the thought. "You could see how he got elected." And how he governs.
Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.