Altered State of the Union
What Would Jeb Do?
Tuesday would have marked his sixth State of the Union address -- and it might have been his best yet.
The nation is in great shape, President Jeb Bush would have reported: record tax cuts propelling the economy to greater heights; a revolutionary school-vouchers program for the first time granting low-income parents real education choices; and, five years after the capture of Osama bin Laden, the final 20,000 U.S. troops returning home from Iraq.
The president would break into his fluent Spanish and wave at his Mexican-born wife, Columba, gazing at him from the balcony. The cameras would settle on their eldest, George P. Bush, 30, and commentators would speculate on whether the dashing lawyer would soon run for Congress and carry on the Bush dynasty.
Yet contrary to the best-laid plans of the Bush family, it won't be John Ellis "Jeb" Bush addressing the nation this week, all
because of that disastrous November Tuesday a dozen years ago. That was the day Jeb -- the articulate and handsome workaholic, the one who as a boy spoke of his White House ambitions, and the one the Bush family counted on to avenge the Great Usurpation of 1992 -- narrowly lost his bid to be governor of Florida. Meanwhile, his older brother George W. had overcome long odds and won the Texas governorship, putting George an insurmountable step ahead of Jeb in the race for the presidency.
But what if Jeb had won the Florida governorship in 1994, been reelected and then taken the White House in 2000? How would the nation be different? What sort of State of the Union would he deliver this week?
This is more than an exercise in alternative history. Because of Florida's term limits, Jeb stepped down as governor three weeks ago, but he should not be counted out of the national political scene. I've covered Jeb Bush for eight years as a state capital reporter, and I'm convinced that he remains the GOP conservative wing's best hope for a post-Iraq comeback. And his own political ambitions burn as brightly as ever. Perhaps 2012 or 2016 or -- why not? -- maybe even 2008, if things break right.
Jeb and George W. are seven years apart but have much in common. Both are stubborn. Both appear convinced that anything that government does the private sector can do better. Both are enamored of tax cuts. And both seem to believe that voters don't have the right to observe the workings of their administrations and should simply trust them to do the right thing. However, the two display real differences on issues spanning crisis management, fiscal policy, foreign policy and, perhaps most important, personal style. Jeb pays much more attention to detail than his brother, and is far more dogged and competent in advancing his agenda -- meaning that a Jeb presidency over the past seven years would have been distinct from his brother's -- and a future one would be as well.
Look first to the home front. On key domestic policy issues such as tax cuts and education reform, Jeb probably would have mirrored his brother's instincts and proposals, though he might have displayed greater staying power in seeing them through.
Under President Jeb, the nation still would have had large federal tax cuts, skewed heavily toward the rich -- or the "risk takers" and "job creators," in Bush family parlance. In Florida, he reduced taxes by $12.2 billion over his eight years, with more than half of that going to the wealthiest 4.5 percent of the population. That saved the average risk taker more than $1,500 a year by the time Jeb left office. And much as President George W. Bush cites tax cuts as the explanation for any positive economic results, Gov. Jeb Bush says that his tax cuts created jobs in Florida and gave us the best economy in the country. (In reality, Jeb had the lowest job-creation rate of any Florida governor dating to 1971.)
On education, Jeb quickly pushed into law a testing program, just as his brother did in Texas and later nationally through No Child Left Behind. Unlike George W., however, Jeb succeeded in introducing the nation's first statewide school-vouchers program. The results are unclear: Jeb says that students who used vouchers to attend private schools received better educations than they had been getting in public schools. But all we know is that the vast majority of such schoolchildren received religious educations at the public's expense. Gov. Bush refused to release the scores for the few voucher children who had to take the public-school standardized test, so whether their educations were superior or awful remains anyone's guess.
For a brief period, George W. sought to include school vouchers in NCLB, but he eventually relented; Jeb, I believe, would never have let it drop. Indeed, much more than his older brother, Jeb seems to take pleasure in the business of governing, as opposed to just campaigning. Whereas George W. claims to stay at 30,000 feet and see the big picture, Jeb is all about the details. He kept long hours as governor, took home fat binders to study each night and knew enough about policy matters to make detailed and cogent arguments for his ideas. It's hard to imagine a President Jeb countenancing the explosion of pork-barrel earmarks in the federal budget the way his brother did, for example. During his eight years as governor, Jeb took the time to slash thousands of such projects out of Florida state budgets, most of them inserted by Republican lawmakers.