Jeb Bush announced on Tuesday that he will establish a leadership PAC in January to explore prospects for a 2016 presidential run. Daily news items about him and strategic appearances in states with early caucuses and primaries signal that his intentions are serious. Described as a favorite of the Republican establishment, Bush has been touted as the best hope for a moderate and electable candidate.
But if his track record as governor in Florida is any indication, a Jeb Bush presidency is the last thing America needs.
In an era of rising inequality and the growing fortunes of dynastic families, it seems fitting that the country may be doomed to see another Clinton or Bush in power. At least when commentators compare Jeb and George W. Bush, they usually assert that Jeb Bush is the bright one, the actually compassionate one, the moderate — more like their dad, George H.W. Bush.
But many of us who saw up close the way Jeb Bush governed Florida hold a different view. His time in power showed him to be no less conservative than George W. Bush and sometimes quite a bit meaner. Although it is likely true that Jeb Bush is the smarter of the two, that only makes him a more formidable opponent for progressives.
Wild West laws
Bush made his political debut in 1994 when he challenged populist Lawton Chiles, who was seeking his second term as Florida governor. The contrast between them was stark, and it worked to Chiles’ advantage. Bush was the rich kid carpetbagger whose main power base was among ultraconservative Cuban-Americans in Miami. Playing brilliantly against that image in the rest of the state, Chiles defeated him, but just barely.
Chiles was Florida’s last Democratic governor — the beginning of the end for a party that once dominated state politics. Bush won the next time around, in 1998, easily defeating a far less talented opponent in Buddy MacKay. Under Bush, Republican power in Florida consolidated rapidly, aided by creative redistricting in 2000 and significant enhancements of his executive authority. The 2000 presidential election, which brought ludicrous tales of hanging chads and fraudulent purges of voters, shamed the state, but George W. Bush won the day. Secretary of State Katherine Harris became the face of that debacle, allowing Jeb Bush to evade public scorn.
With George W. Bush in the White House and Jeb Bush in a governor’s mansion, Bush family projects found fertile ground in the Sunshine State. Florida became the major test zone for transforming public education. It was also a demonstration site for privatization, outsourcing and tax cuts for the wealthy. He abolished affirmative action in contracts and university admissions, provoking a sit-in in his office in 1996 that included two state legislators.
Even more boldly, as one of three trustees of the state pension fund, Jeb Bush approved a 2002 purchase of $325 million in Enron stock as newspapers were pronouncing the firm’s demise. (Ken Lay, then-CEO of Enron, was an old family friend.) Bush went on to become an investment consultant for Lehman Brothers in the months after he left office in 2007, when it sold the Florida pension fund $800 million in worthless securitized mortgages.
The manager of the pension fund resigned over this outrage, but Bush again avoided scandal.
It will be a difficult task for any GOP candidate to please all segments of the rightward-moving Republican Party at once.
Tough on crime and friendly to guns, hostile to labor and public education, as governor, Bush teamed with the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to enact some radical laws. The best known is “stand your ground,” which was born in Florida. Bush and the National Rifle Association were the principal advocates for this Wild West law, which allows frightened gun owners to shoot potential threats first and ask questions later.
The Trayvon Martin case brought national attention to “stand your ground,” but only after it was passed in 21 more states. Other ALEC-inspired laws passed during Bush’s tenure include 10-20-Life, the Three-Strikes Violent Felony Offender Act and the Habitual Offender Accountability Act, all designed to enhance mandatory minimum sentences and reduce judicial discretion, the effect of which has been a ballooning prison population and the felon disenfranchisement of about 20 percent of black voters.
Bush attempted to speed up the appeals process for death row inmates, a measure the state Supreme Court rejected. This was partly because Florida had a bad record on sentencing innocent people to death — errors that sometimes take a long time to surface. Bush shut down the Tallahassee office of Capital Collateral Representative, publicly funded attorneys and investigators who worked on postconviction death penalty appeals, because it was getting sentences reversed for so many innocent death row inmates that it became an embarrassing.
Of course, he was ardently pro-life in matters like abortion, stem cell research and the fate of Terri Schiavo, a St. Petersburg woman who suffered massive brain damage from cardiac arrest in 1995 and who remained in a persistent vegetative state until her husband won the legal fight to have her feeding tube removed in 2005.
Bush calls himself the education governor. He still works on his reform plans in the state through his Foundation for Excellence in Education. His record on education in Florida so far has been transformational — just not in a good way. Bush eliminated the Board of Regents, which administered the public universities, replacing it with local trustees appointed by the governor. These boards have been almost entirely composed of big donors and Republican hard-liners.
At University of South Florida, where I worked, his newly appointed board and handpicked president fired Sami al-Arian, a tenured Palestinian professor, for statements made almost 20 years earlier. For K–12, the recipe was private school vouchers, charter schools, high stakes testing and war on the teachers’ union. Public funds for testing, grading, tutoring and classroom materials and equipment have offered a bonanza for Bush friends and supporters. There have been recurring scandals about excessive profits in charter school operation, along with disappointing performance results. A statewide study of charter schools conducted by the League of Women Voters revealed widespread problems and many questionable practices. Charter school owners reap huge profits from the real estate they occupy and hiring low-paid nonunion teachers.
The Florida experiment came in advance of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB), but in 2006, 60 percent of Florida schools that earned an A or B on the state exams failed to meet NCLB standards.
Jeb Bush has been a major supporter of the Common Core standards, a project that has put him in alliance with Obama’s Department of Education and at odds with Tea Party Republicans. He recently addressed the national meeting of ALEC, where he defended Common Core and sought to forge alliances on contentious issues. His support for Common Core and for more flexible immigration laws are the principal factors that buttress his image as a moderate.
But Bush isn’t lying when he says he really is a staunch conservative, rabidly supportive of union-busting and privatization schemes. He is hawkish on defense, endorsing the neoconservative Project for the New American Century’s call for continued U.S. world dominance. He even blasted Obama’s popular announcement on Dec. 17 to normalize U.S.-Cuban relations, calling it a reward for the dictators who rule the island.
It will surely be a difficult task for any GOP candidate to please all segments of the rightward-moving Republican Party at once, but Bush thinks he’s up for the task. In the blush of his almost announcement, he must look like salvation for the Republican Party. He has strong name recognition and a formidable capacity to raise funds. But part of that name recognition associates him with recent disasters and plutocracy.
In the end, Bush’s impossible balancing act between a moderate face and a reactionary heart may dim the glow that surrounds his potential candidacy. The more voters pick through the Bush legacy in Florida, the less they will find to like.