Former Florida governor Jeb Bush isn’t running for something. That might have allowed him a degree of candor that current officials and candidates don’t enjoy. But in a breakfast this morning in Tampa with journalists from The Post and Bloomberg News, he also showed that, in many ways, he stands head and shoulders — and quite apart — from fellow Republicans.
Bush is known, as his brother was, for his devotion to resolving the illegal immigration problem and making the GOP a more inclusive party. Asked about the party’s gap with the Democrats among Hispanic voters, he said, “I think the gap can narrow, and I think it will narrow, as people get to know Mitt Romney. I’m always amazed at how, for normal people, how little they know about our candidates until like a night like tonight or the debates.”
In part, the GOP’s path to Hispanic voters runs through issues unrelated to immigration. As Bush said, Immigration “is down the list [of issues Hispanic voters care about] — about the same place it is for everybody else, maybe a little bit higher, but significantly lower than the economy, jobs, education, deficit, debt, health care. Those are the issues that American voters say are the most important ones. But it’s a gateway issue, because it’s an issue that allows you — if you have shown some sensitivity — it allows you to be heard.”.
For Bush, the equation is simple. He was candid that his view is not the mainstream position within the Republican Party. Asked about his support for the Dream Act, Bush answered: “I think to use the power of the presidency effectively, you don’t have to use it for cynical reasons, and you don’t have to use it beyond what your power — what the Constitution allows. But having a solution to the fact that we have all of these young people, many of whom are making great contributions, don’t have a connection to their parents’ former country — yeah, of course I’m for it. You know, but then again, I’m — you know, I’m not running for anything and I can speak my mind.”
I asked Bush about what a Republican education policy should look like, given the party’s aversion to federal control. On higher education, he plunged right in, urging that we look anew at the entire student-loan system: “[W]hat we’ve done is, we’ve raised tuition. It’s been financed, by and large, by the federal government. Local government, state governments, as well, but mostly federal. And then we just put this load on unemployed graduates and those that don’t graduate. Those are the ones that Paul Ryan talked about — that are in their pajamas in their parents’ guest room looking at the faded Obama posters. So we’re financing this off the backs of people that aren’t getting a bang for their buck. And this is a place I know that Governor Romney believes there has to be change. And where the federal government can play a useful role of providing education opportunities, but not at the expense of an unreformed higher education system.”
His idea is to use student loan monies to force reform upon higher education: He would say that “your university is not qualified to receive student loans, the benefit of student loans, if they don’t have performance criteria attached to it, that your graduation rate goes up . . . [So] require productivity gains. Require professors to teach. Require completion rates. Require that there’s counseling for students so they don’t change their degrees four times. Require the process to work more productively.”
On K-12 education, he had some praise for President Obama’s education secretary. He urged more of the same: “[T]he president can be a partner. Here — this is a place where, of all the policy areas, I think President Obama deserves some recognition for having a different approach than at least what I expected. He appointed a good education secretary, who’s worked across the aisle politically, and I think that could be expanded with stronger partnerships, more waivers that allow for meaningful reform.”
Bush is nevertheless an enthusiastic partisan, hopeful that Obama will be tossed out. He had an interesting take on Romney’s so-called likability problem: “[I]t’s not a bad thing to be reserved and humble and charitable and disciplined and hardworking. It’s being strangely viewed kind of as a defect in politics today, because we all have to be more Clinton-esque, I guess, and show our frailties in ways that people can relate to, because we’re all imperfect under God’s watchful eye.”
And he forcefully argued that Obama has failed to lead and bring in the opposition to solve our biggest issues. He told the journalists: “He didn’t win the election saying, ‘I’m a doctrinaire, hard-core ideologue. Vote for me.’ He won the election because he said that we can do things differently and we can find common ground. The old way’s bad, and we need to find a new way of doing things, and he — he violated his own mandate by moving in a completely different direction.”
Bush also painted Obama as a weak leader — who “outsourced” the stimulus and health care to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (R-Calif.) — lacking the skill himself to forge deals. The need to bring party leaders together can’t be accomplished by Obama, Bush says: “I’m convinced it’s not going to happen with Barack Obama as president.”
Bush is a successful two-term governor, with a record of reform and a inclusive attitude when it comes to courting voters and governing. If in the future he decides to return to the political arena, the country and the GOP would be well served.