Dana Milbank: Jeb Bush’s heresy

Dana Milbank
Opinion writer June 12, 2012

This week’s featured entree in the Republicans’ auto-da-fe is a rather surprising selection: presidential son, presidential brother and presidential timber Jeb Bush.

The former Florida governor, until now a revered figure in the party, had the temerity to state in public what many others think in private: that the Republican Party has become so intransigent that even Ronald Reagan couldn’t fit under its tent.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

“Reagan would have, based on his record of finding accommodation, finding some degree of common ground, as would my dad — they would have a hard time if you define the Republican Party . . . as having an orthodoxy that doesn’t allow for disagreement, doesn’t allow for finding some common ground,” Bush said Monday in a meeting at Bloomberg headquarters in New York, according to the online publication Buzzfeed.

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

This brought immediate condemnation from the Grand Inquisitor himself, Defender of the Faith and Keeper of the Tax Pledge Grover Norquist, who told Talking Points Memo that Bush’s sentiments were “foolish” and “bizarre.”

Coincidentally, Bush made his remarks the same day the conservative American Enterprise Institute held a show trial for Norm Ornstein, its scholar who dared to co-author an article in The Post titled “Admit it. The Republicans are worse” [Outlook, April 29].

Ornstein’s debate opponent, conservative author Steve Hayward, suddenly had the more difficult task of arguing against not only his AEI colleague but also against one of the nation’s most charismatic conservative leaders. After Ornstein invoked Bush’s words, Hayward answered with two Latin debating techniques the Republicans have used with great frequency over the past few years: ad hominem and non sequitur: “Well, all I’ll say about Jeb Bush is the Bush family still has not gotten over losing in 1980 to Ronaldus Magnus, and I’ll leave it at that.”

But what about the substance of Jeb Bush’s criticism? He told the House Budget Committee recently that he would accept a dollar in tax-revenue increases in exchange for every $10 in spending cuts — a hypothetical deal the party’s presidential candidates rejected. Bush later told Charlie Rose that his willingness to accept the reality of tax increases means “I’m not running for anything.”

In that sense, Hayward didn’t lay a glove on Ornstein’s argument, which is that the Republicans are acting like a parliamentary opposition party — rejecting any thought of compromise — in a non-parliamentary system that requires compromise. Typical of the sentiment, Ornstein said, was the view of Richard Mourdock, who recently defeated Sen. Dick Lugar in the Indiana Republican primary: “Bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view.”

Hayward all but conceded this. “I actually think there’s quite a bit to be said that the Republican Party — I’m not sure if it’s not understanding the legislative process or isn’t very good at it,” he said. “The Republican Party’s ability as a legislative party atrophied during those decades when they were out of power.” Democrats, he said “are better at running Congress — there’s no question about that. And Republicans are yet to prove they’re any good at governing as a majority.”

Instead, Hayward argued that Democrats have been just as bad as the Republicans are today. “Is it really true,” he asked, “that the partisanship of Republicans today is different in character than the kind of partisanship that led Tip O’Neill to forbid House Democrats to cooperate with Republicans on Social Security reform during Reagan’s first term?”

Well, yes, it is different. House Democrats voted 3 to 1 in favor of the 1983 Social Security compromise between O’Neill and Reagan.

A better case against Ornstein’s hypothesis (developed in a book he wrote with Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution) is that Democrats, learning from the Republicans’ intransigence, would use the same scorched-earth tactics if they become the opposition party. Republicans, conversely, could become more responsible if they became the governing party.

But for now, the burden of responsibility is being carried by only a few heretics, such as Jeb Bush, who dares to say things such as “I don’t have to play the game of being 100,000 percent against President Obama.”

Or does he? On Tuesday, he sent out a series of tweets to clarify his apostasy. “For 4 years, Democrats have held leadership roles w/opportunities to reach across political aisle,” he wrote. “For sake of politics, they haven’t.”

Maybe now Norquist will untie him from the stake.

danamilbank@washpost.com

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