IF ONLY HIS LAST NAME WERE SMITH. He'd not only attract national attention as the popular and successful governor of a difficult-to-govern state. He'd be viewed sympathetically as a leader who had dealt with family issues--his wife's aversion to politics, his daughter's bouts with drug addiction--without losing his grip on the governorship. And he'd be the prohibitive frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.
But his last name is Bush. So Jeb Bush, nearing the end of his eight years as governor of Florida, has to settle for being the best governor in America. Not proclaimed the best governor by the media and the political community. But recognized as the best by a smaller group: governors who served with him and experts and think-tank and conservative policy wonks who regard state government as something other than a machine for taxing and spending.
Why is Jeb Bush the best? It's very simple. His record is the best. No other governor, Republican or Democrat, comes close. Donna Arduin, perhaps the most respected state budget expert in the country, has worked for four big-state Republican governors--John Engler of Michigan, George Pataki of New York, Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, and Bush. Even while she worked for Schwarzenegger, she told me Bush is "absolutely" the nation's premier governor. "He's principled, brilliant, willing to ignore his pollsters, and say no to his friends," she says.
Engler, now head of the National Association of Manufacturers, knows Jeb Bush well and has watched the course of his governorship. He says flatly: "Jeb Bush is the finest governor in the country." Jim Gilmore, the ex-governor of Virginia, declines to rank governors. But he says Bush, as governor of a big state, "had a big challenge and he met it."
In a state with a surging population, Bush has presided over a booming economy with the highest rate of job creation in the country and an unemployment rate of 3.0 percent (the national average is 4.6 percent). Florida has no state income tax, but Bush has nonetheless found a way to cut taxes every year of the eight he's been in office. Meanwhile, he's trimmed the state employment rolls by 11,000.
"Politics is a game for risk takers," says Mike Murphy, a political strategist for Bush and other governors, including Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Schwarzenegger. And Bush is an extraordinary risk taker and innovator. He's made Florida, in the jargon of bipartisan experts, a "laboratory of democracy." He's mined state and local think tanks for ideas that might streamline state government and make it more effective.
He's the first governor to impose stringent testing and accountability on Florida elementary and secondary schools, along with three voucher programs, the most ambitious of which was struck down this year by the (liberal and majority Democratic) state supreme court. This achievement went beyond the No Child Left Behind program of his brother, President Bush, who dropped vouchers in a compromise with Democrats in 2001.
On health care, no governor has attacked Medicaid, whose costs are swamping state budgets, more boldly than Bush. He wangled a breathtakingly broad waiver from the federal Department of Health and Human Services to privatize Medicaid in two populous counties, Duval (Jacksonville) and Broward (Fort Lauderdale). The new program, affecting more than 200,000 Medicaid recipients, goes into effect July 1.
Two more things. Bush, after handling eight hurricanes and four tropical storms in 14 months in 2004 and 2005, has become the undisputed national leader in emergency management. Imagine if he had been governor of Louisiana when Katrina hit last summer. Does anyone doubt that the recovery would have gone far, far better with Bush in charge?
A key to success as a governor is forceful political leadership. Bush, in fact, has been the dominant figure in the Republican party in Florida since 1994, when he lost his first bid for governor to Democrat Lawton Chiles. That allowed his brother George, who won an upset victory for governor of Texas the same year, to get a leg up on Jeb in pursuit of the presidency.
But Jeb Bush has turned out to be the superior governor of the two. He's the most powerful chief executive in Florida in modern times and has had a positive impact on the state in almost every conceivable way--economically, fiscally, educationally, politically, and the list could go on and on. Bush says Florida is a "purple" state, a mixture of Republican red and Democratic blue. But when he departs Tallahassee for his hometown of Miami next January 1, he will leave Republicans in a vastly stronger position than they dreamed possible when he took office in 1999.
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.
"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.