Not Jeb Bush’s GOP

Does the Republican hero and former Florida governor have a place in his own party?

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush testifies before the House Budget Committee.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on June 1, 2012 in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Jeb Bush does not want to be vice president. That’s what he says when he’s asked directly, but he really proves it when he’s talking about everything else. On issues from budget policy to leadership style to immigration, Bush, one of the most popular national Republicans, is a man out of step with his party. This does not mean he likes President Obama. He wants him out of office. He’d shove him if he could, for his repeated attacks on his brother if nothing else. But after listening to the two-term Florida governor talk to a group of reporters at a breakfast hosted by Bloomberg View on Monday morning, it’s not clear how Bush could ever be the nominee of a party he says would no longer support his father or Ronald Reagan.

It’s not just that Bush’s policy prescriptions on topics like immigration and tackling the deficit are a challenge to party orthodoxy. He also describes a more pragmatic vision of leadership—where accomplishments are valued over ideological purity—that seems deeply at odds with conservative calls for maximum constancy. This is perhaps the freedom enjoyed by those who are not running for president. But the formula Bush offers does reflect on the man who is running: Jeb Bush is describing a hole in American politics, and Mitt Romney is not necessarily the man to fill it. 

“We’re in decline which distinguishes us historically from where we’ve been,” says Bush, who sees the economy shuffling along with anemic growth for the next year, no matter who wins in November. His solutions for getting out of the rut are less policy-specific—he doesn’t have a grand plan about Medicare vouchers or getting rid of the home mortgage interest deduction. He’s more focused on the temperament of governing.  

As a former governor, it’s not surprising where he finds the best examples of leaders who are free of Washington orthodoxy and getting things done: “Just about any statehouse in the country.” He singles out Indiana Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels and Colorado Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper for their effectiveness. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also gets praise. Among his qualities: He knows how to “cut a deal.” Bush is not making a pitch for moderation or watered-down conservative principles, but for conservatism that goes beyond a talking point.

“Ronald Reagan would have … a hard time if you define the Republican Party—and I don’t—as having an orthodoxy that doesn’t allow for disagreement, doesn’t allow for finding some common ground,” Bush said, adding that he views the partisan sclerosis as “temporary.”

“Back to my dad’s time and Ronald Reagan’s time—they got a lot of stuff done with a lot of bipartisan support,” he said. Today Reagan “would be criticized for doing the things that he did.”

If Bush is critical of his party, he is contemptuous of the Democrats. While he’s vague about the GOP, he drills down to specifics about Democrats. In every detail, you can hear how they eat at him—from the Democratic members of the House budget committee “who just read what some 20- or 25-year-old has handed them” to the Senate’s inability to come up with a budget. 

President Obama’s big failing, says Bush, was his refusal to embrace the Simpson-Bowles commission he set up to find a way to reduce budget deficits. It was a failure of leadership, says Bush, who argues that had the president fought for the plan and lost, he would not have suffered politically. “Presidents matter, and this president lost his chance to be a transcendent figure.”  Leadership, he argues, would have been the president’s own political reward. “Had he tried with sincerity and tried hard, he could make a compelling case ‘Conservatives are against me, they’re not for advancing the broader interests of this country.’ “

This is a common complaint about Obama’s leadership, and it doesn’t seem to take into account that Obama showed just that kind of leadership pushing for health care reform.

Asked to offer a bold example of presidential leadership, Bush pointed to his father’s 1990 budget deal. It was undeniably an act of political bravery; the elder Bush betrayed his conservative base in order to reach a deal to reduce the deficit. “It created the spending restraint of the ‘90s more than anything else that was helpful in creating a climate of more sustained economic growth.”

This is where the tension over leadership attributes becomes acute. Where Jeb Bush sees a signature act of political leadership and bravery, conservative Republicans see a great apostasy. This isn’t just some passing historical moment. It is a signature betrayal that Republicans point to again and again. Bush is doing something akin to a Red Sox fan cheering for Babe Ruth’s trade to the Yankees. Grover Norquist, the Republican anti-tax advocate, dismissed Bush. “He’s just agreed to walk down the same alley his dad did with the same gang,” he told Talking Points Memo. “And he thinks he’s smart. You walk down that alley, you don’t come out.”

The Bush 1990 budget deal makes for an interesting historical test. Mitt Romney’s campaign won’t say whether he has an opinion on this historical turning point. During the primary, Romney said he would not vote for a hypothetical budget deal that included $1 in tax increases for every $10 in spending cuts. (Bush and Daniels said they would.) That would suggest Romney is in the Grover Norquist camp. (He has signed Norquist’s pledge.)

So Bush would appear to be at odds with his nominee’s worldview, except that Romney has also used support for the Bush budget deal as a signature test of leadership. When attacking Newt Gingrich during the primary, he singled out Gingrich’s opposition to the Bush budget deal as a key Gingrich failure. Former Bush Chief of Staff John Sununu held a press conference to highlight Gingrich’s lack of support. George H.W. Bush also cited Gingrich’s opposition to the deal in his support of Romney. But according to the Norquist pledge that Romney has signed, Gingrich’s opposition should be seen as an act of anti-tax heroism. 

In the hourlong discussion of leadership attributes, Mitt Romney was not among the ready examples Bush cited when talking about effective leadership. For a period of Romney’s career, the former Massachusetts governor presented himself as just the kind of pragmatic, results-oriented politician that Bush describes. His signature accomplishment as governor, health care reform, is exactly what Bush was describing: a hard-fought deal that achieved something even though it meant working with Democrats. “He was incredibly impressive, with his intellect, his ability,” MIT economics professor Jonathan Gruber, a Democrat who worked with Romney on the plan, told Karen Tumulty. “If there is anything that qualifies him to be president of the United States, it is his leadership on this issue.”

When Bush did talk about Romney at length, it was about Romney’s tough stance against illegal immigration. “Governor Romney has used [his immigration position] to connect with a group of voters who were quite angry, and it was effective,” says Bush, “but now he’s in somewhat of a box.” While Bush said the angry portion of the GOP electorate that’s scared about porous borders has a legitimate point, Romney’s task now is to appeal to different voters, namely Hispanics. Bush’s prescription for political recovery is for Romney to pitch a broader economic message to Hispanic voters. 

Bush, who supported an in-state tuition plan similar to the one Mitt Romney attacked Rick Perry for promoting, says that he feels “out of step with my party” on immigration. He also has a larger complaint about the purity tests that rule politics today. “I would hope that we don’t just all have to march [in lock step.] If I’m a conservative and someone else is a liberal, we’re sent a little book that says you must not veer. You have to embrace the orthodoxy of the moment.” Bush is not marching in line. The question is whether he’s off on his own or whether the GOP nominee will take the party in a similar direction.