Former Florida governor Jeb Bush has repeatedly insisted he will not be Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s pick for vice president in November.
But that didn’t stop Congressional Democrats from giving Bush the full vice presidential treatment, during a rare appearance by Bush at a Capitol Hill hearing.
The former governor is now a consultant who heads up Jeb Bush and Associates and is a senior advisor to Barclays.
Ostensibly, Bush came before the House Budget Committee Friday to testify on removing barriers to economic growth.
But the back story tensions of the hearing — chaired by fellow rumored vice presidential possibility Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and attended by committee member Democratic National Committee chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz — were the real story of Bush’s return to the field of political combat.
Did Bush support the bank bailout, despised by many conservatives but signed into law by his brother former president George W. Bush?
“For a short term solution to a problem that had global implication, I think that was probably the right thing to do,” he said.
How about the auto bailout, opposed by Romney but cheered by Democrats as the salvation of the American car industry?
“No,” he said, noting that the terms have allowed GM to avoid some taxes on their newfound profits. “That’s a form of capitalism” that occurs “when government intervenes in a very muscular way. And I don’t believe that’s appropriate.”
In response to Democratic questioning, Bush said he believes any revenues collected from closing tax loopholes should be put to lowering rates — and not reducing the deficit. That’s the same position as enshrined in the anti-tax pledge circulated by activist Grover Norquist.
But he was quick to note that he declined to sign the pledge during three runs for office.
“I don’t believe you outsource your principles and convictions to people,” he said. “I respect Grover’s political involvement. He has every right to do it, but I never signed any pledge.”
And unlike all of the Republican presidential candidates, including Romney, Bush said he could accept a deficit reduction deal that paired $10 of spending cuts for $1 in new revenue.
“This will prove I’m not running for anything,” he said. “If you could bring to me a majority of people to say that we’re going to have 10 dollars of spending cuts for 1 dollar of revenue enhancements, put me in, coach.”
Bush remained calm and cordial throughout the hearing — using the backdrop of the dismal May jobs report to advocate for lowering government regulations on businesses, simplify the tax code and cut government spending.
But his seeming departure from some pieces of Republican orthodoxy reinforced his oft repeated claim that he will sit out elected politics. But it could also boost his image as a pragmatic realist who could make a comeback as an antidote to Washington’s partisanship.
He told reporters after the hearing that he has not been asked to submit to a vice presidential vetting by the Romney campaign and insisted, again, that he will not be Romney’s pick. He advocated Romney choose Florida Sen. Marco Rubio instead.
“He’s the most articulate spokesman for conservative principles I think in America today,” Bush said. “And he’s my friend. So I’m a little biased. But I think he’d be extraordinary.”
But during the hearing, Democrats made clear the lines of attack they might use against a candidate Bush. He weathered pointed questions about his role as a paid advisor to Lehman Brothers at the time of its collapse.
And the hearing opened with sharp criticism from the committee’s ranking Democrat Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) for remaining silent about spending increases under his brother’s eight-year term as president.
“I must confess,” Van Hollen told Bush, “I’m a little surprised that you decided to be here today to criticize the efforts made over the last three years to lift the economy out of the mess that President Obama inherited.... I’ve searched the record and, as far as I can tell, during that eight-year period you did not challenge the Bush administration’s handling of the economy, or criticize the excessive spending or the rising deficits.”
But Bush took the criticism in stride.
“I’m not used to the 9 o’clock food fight that starts bright and early in Washington,” he joked. “I didn’t come to criticize anybody. I came to share my views.”