The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

My interview with Jeb Bush

A former GOP governor is traveling extensively, speaks passionately about the lack of presidential leadership, is conversant in foreign policy and has a comprehensive vision for domestic reform. A presidential contender? Well, that is what everyone wants to know about Jeb Bush.

Sitting in his educational foundation’s offices in Washington, Bush is animated and – if you think this has political implications – looks thinner than I have seen him over the past couple of years. No, he didn’t say whether he has decided to run for president, but he gave every appearance of being ready and capable of doing so – if he wants to. For now he’s sticking to his self-imposed time schedule to announce his plans at the end of the year.

Virtually the only thing the MSM wants to know about Jeb Bush is whether he’s running, but there have been relatively few substantive interviews with him on policy issues. He is fully engaged on a wide range of topics, sort of a less caffeinated version of Jack Kemp.

When I ask him the last time he felt the world was as unstable and dangerous as it is now, he answers, “Maybe 1979?!” “The president has mirrored public sentiment and for the wrong reason,” he says. “He has played to a facet of people who are [war-]fatigued. That is a total misread and now he is paying the price.”

Bush attributed the current state of events to Obama’s lack of leadership and his withdrawal from the world. “He created the problem. … [Now] there is no strategy. There is no coalition.” He notes that the response from European allies to entreaties to join forces against the Islamic State was “tepid at best.”

He made clear that Congress should support the president’s tentative steps to attack the jihadis. (“You want to give him the benefit of the doubt.”) And yet he is aware that American leadership has faltered and allies have anxiety about America’s role in the world. “I get it around the world and I get it in my travels,” he says.  He suspects the next couple of years will be “trial and error, bobbing and weaving, trying to sort it out.”

Just back from the Czech Republic, Bush detours into the Obama administration’s decision early in the first term to pull out missile defense systems. “It [the anti-missile system] was a sign of support for those countries,” he said of the betrayal of longtime allies. (Political watchers will note that this was one of Hillary Clinton’s early controversies in the first Bush term. It was she who called the Czechs and Poles at the last minute to warn them the U.S. would publicly cancel the arrangements.)

In Eastern Europe and elsewhere, he says, “There is a lot of talk – ‘Is America going to be here for us?’ In the Middle East it is pretty clear [that] the U.S. has lost its way.” He brings up the recent airstrike by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates to target jihadis in Libya. “The story I saw said we didn’t even know about it,” he says in amazement. “You’re that lacking in confidence in the United States? You’re compelled to act independently because you don’t trust the U.S.”

In Bush’s eyes the traditional role the United States has played “no longer applies.” He shakes his head. “It’s a skillset [Obama] has mastered. He says, ‘These people over here want to go to war everywhere and these people over here are isolationist. I above all will find common ground.’” Plainly Bush sees the U.S. as “a leader among nations,” one that keeps the peace and rallies allies. In the era of Obama, that sounds almost quaint. As an example, he says, “The fact that the U.S. is superior to all others allows for free commerce to take place. This is a dangerous time. Our words matter but we have to back it up with capability.”

As Bush speaks, one is reminded that, until the current president, every modern U.S. president of either party would have shared these sentiments. But plainly this president sees the world in far different terms.

Bush may be best known for his education reforms in Florida and his continuing efforts to see comprehensive reform throughout the country. He admits, however, “In the last year or year and a half there has been a stalling-out of the comprehensive reform movement.” Common Core has been in the middle of this, with supporters advocating the adoption of high standards originally developed by the states and critics characterizing them as the administration’s attempt to take over education. This is a distraction, in Bush’s view, along with less central issues like the amount of testing required of children. Interestingly, Bush does not castigate Common Core critics for peddling misinformation about the state-developed standards. Instead he invokes a theme conservatives find familiar: “The principal reason [for the fight] has been the president. There is no trust he will faithfully enforce the law.” He points to the administration’s conditioning No Child Left Behind waivers on adoption of Common Core or equivalent standards, a practice driven not by legislation but by executive whim. “I respect the frustration. But those who oppose Common Core need to finish the sentence. ‘I oppose Common Core … but I want high expectations for my child, for my schools.”

Bush ticks off the list of must-haves in education beginning with “higher standards” – and without invoking Common Core specifically. He goes down the list: “Accurate testing, shifting to teacher effectiveness – and being able to fire bad teachers, school choice, embrace digital learning.  We know these have yielded great results.”

For him education is part of a greater concern about upward mobility. “We’re getting sticky at the ends,” he says, invoking the way economists and other explain the divide between rich and poor. The people at the top have increased personal wealth and the people at the bottom have transfer payments but less opportunity to work and move up. He says there is “no better way” than education reform to address this problem.

This leads to a wider discussion about the movement informally known as reform conservatism, an effort to outline a positive agenda putting conservative ideas into practice. “I’m a huge fan of their work,” he says. “In this town what gets emphasized and gets repeated is reacting to the president overreaching. We [Republicans] look reactionary rather than fixing how government works. We need a set of things that we need to do.” He says there hasn’t been enough attention or a compelling big vision that ties a lot of good ideas together. He smiles and then says, “I guess that is what campaigns are about.”

One imagines that this is the crux of the matter for Jeb Bush. He’s always been a policy man, but he knows better than most that, if you don’t win in the political arena, you don’t get to enact your ideas. And he certainly has many ideas, along with a surprising amount of enthusiasm and optimism. Surprising, I say, because he remains the sunny conservative. “Things can be extraordinarily better. We just need to fix a few big things to create higher sustained economic growth.” He says there is no reason we can’t get to 3.5 percent or 4 percent growth, “But it would require big changes.”

Even on immigration he remains optimistic that we can address border security and then move to fixing the broken system. “We have to be young and entrepreneurial,” he argues, pointing to the demographic gap the country will face, with many old people and many young but not enough high-skilled workers in the middle. For him, “fixing a broken system and replacing it with one with an economic-driven system that works” is essential. “This is back to whether [Republicans] are going to reform or react.”

Bush is more at ease in discussing policy issues and more relaxed than most politicians who might seek the presidency. That may come from the luxury of a private life — he notes he has three grandchildren — wherein he can travel, give speeches and talk to interesting people. (He is excited to share his experiences with a couple of high-tech entrepreneurs who are helping revolutionize everything from medicine to travel accommodations.) That may make return to politics that much harder.

He has an interesting life, which makes him among the more interesting public figures to engage on policy issues. That, in his supporters’ eyes, is all the more reason for him to run for president. In a political world that is stale, dysfunctional and achingly negative, the person to inject some intellectual verve and a more genial tone might be the guy who has been out of politics for some time. I put a Bush run at 50-50.