This man is not a "moderate": Why Jeb Bush is more conservative than you think

According to the dominant media narrative, Jeb Bush runs to the center. But history tells a different story

Published February 23, 2015 1:30PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Rebecca Cook)
(Reuters/Rebecca Cook)

Election Day 2016 is just a bit less than two years away, so you've got more than enough time to prepare. But if you're not numb to it already, get used to this phrase, because you're going to hear it constantly in the weeks and months to come:

"Jeb Bush, the moderate former governor of Florida..."

In terms of convenient but factually dubious crutches that will be leaned on constantly by the horse-race media, the "Bush-the-moderate" narrative is poised to blow its competition out of the water. Its lesser cousin, "Bush-the-genius," won't even come close.

The problem with seeing Jeb Bush this way is rather simple: Unless "moderate" simply means "to the left of Ted Cruz" — which, to be fair, it very well might! — it is a terrible descriptor for Bush's record. Indeed, when University of Northern Florida professor Matthew Corrigan needed a name for his new book on Bush, he went with "Conservative Hurricane: How Jeb Bush Remade Florida." He did so with good reason, as his review of Bush's track record demonstrates — on education and affirmative action, on taxes and reproductive rights — he did so with good reason.

Recently, Salon spoke with Corrigan over the phone about his book. Our conversation touches not only on Bush's policy record, but also his governing style, his personality type, his vision of the role of government and how he'd likely act if he became the United States' 45th president. You can find our discussion, which has been edited for clarity and length, below.

Can you tell me a little bit about when you started paying close attention to Gov. Bush?

I've been a professor here [at the University of North Florida] for about 20 years and I started paying attention to him not as much in his first campaign but more in his second campaign in 1998. He came on as such an important force, and what I mean by that is that he was running against a lieutenant governor whose name was known but wasn't the personality that Jeb Bush was. When he campaigned and he won, you knew that we were in for a different type of governor here in Florida, so that's when I started paying attention to him.

When I started thinking about writing the book was later, because I had written a book on the Bush and Clinton families and their quest for the presidency and one of the chapters in that book was on Jeb. I got interested in him and, of course, being here in Florida just magnified it. That's when I decided to write the book on him. When I wrote the book, I didn't know, obviously, that he'd be probably running for president. I thought he might, but I wasn't sure.

For people outside of Florida, Jeb Bush isn't all that well known as a political commodity. What is the Jeb Bush personality?

I think he has a particular style. He is not a glad-hander, maybe like George W., and he's not a stirring speech-giver like President Obama, but he's very good at answering questions and he magnifies belief in executive power, belief that if he's going to lead government we're going to get things done. With the Bush last name and with his forceful personality — and I would say that his personality as governor is different from the personality that's being seen in the media today; he seems to be much more moderate in style.

He was conservative as a governor, but [he's showcasing] a much more open expression, a much more moderate way of reacting to everything from reporters' questions to unflattering media inquiries and things like that. Let me give you an example: When the gay marriage issue came up recently, he said something to the effect that he was for so-called traditional marriage but we need to respect all sides. I'm not sure you would have heard that especially during his first term as governor, because he was very conservative on socio-cultural issues. It was basically the idea of, hey, there's a right and a wrong on these issues and I'm in the right. I think the overall personality — at least the outward image — has changed somewhat since he's left the governorship.

Part of the way the media presents him to the national audience is as a moderate and a technocrat. Does that come through if you look at his time as governor?

One of the reasons that he's been seen as a moderate is because of the emergence of the Tea Party. If you go back to the 1994 race, which he lost, you could argue that he was the Ted Cruz of his time. He really talked about eliminating our state Department of Education. There was the infamous comment about African-Americans, when he was asked what he'd do for blacks at the time, and said, probably nothing.

When he won in '98 he definitely changed his manner and approach but he still had very conservative policies. I think what people don't realize is that his social and cultural agenda gets mixed up a little bit with his stance on immigration reform because they see that as the moderate or even liberal position on immigration

Can you give me some specific examples of conservative policies he introduced?

While he was governor, he called himself probably the most pro-life governor of modern times; he had the Terri Schiavo intervention. He was very strong on gun rights; "stand your ground" was passed under his time as governor. He started a faith-based prison in which prisoners — who, I believe, volunteered and were put through religious counseling as a final step toward rehabilitation. Oh, and of course he ended affirmative action by executive order, in a very controversial way, on a state level. If you take all that, that's a fairly robust social and cultural agenda.

Even on the education issue, on which he's received criticism from the left and the right, he got a lot more criticism from the left during his time as governor than he did from people who were worried about federal control. The way it was presented was that testing was used as a means for choice; in other words, he was trying to create a market-based system, a Milton Friedman-type market where you could go to a charter school or a private school or a public school, all with taxpayer money. The aim was a very conservative aim of a market-based school system and the testing that has now become so controversial was merely the trigger to get to that. I argue in the book that it's really a conservative change. It's not necessarily a huge liberal program; the testing, while it obviously requires government to enforce it, is a means to choice-based schooling.

It seems like there's more a sense of mission with him than with his brother. Not in the sense that he's a holy warrior or anything like that, but more that he has a clear ideological vision in a way that his brother — who famously wasn't too interested in policy — did not. Is that a fair characterization?

I think it's very fair. I'd like to ask him about five questions, and one of the questions I'd like to ask him is, can you take that attention to detail to the federal government? Are you going to be emailing mid-level bureaucrats in the Commerce Department and saying, what are you doing today? Because that's a tall order. I think the premise of your question that's correct is that there is a well-thought-out agenda and the vast majority of it is conservative. If Democrats and independents are thinking that this is basically a moderate Republican platform, I think they do need to go back and look at the records in Florida because that just wasn't the case.

Another part of your comment goes to the fact that this guy wants to accomplish big goals; things will change if he's president. Obviously, that depends on what the legislature looks like but I would think that if a Republican won in 2016, both houses probably would stay Republican. It would be an action-oriented agenda and probably one that's been very well-conceived, whereas his brother was much more of a gut politician. I don't think George W. Bush conceived of Medicare Part D, you know? That was from others, whereas Jeb Bush said he'd rather read books than be out in a big crowd. He's a policy guy, there's no question about that.

How do you feel that Floridians remember Jeb Bush? What does the Bush era bring to mind for most of them?

I think it's generally positive, and the reason for that is the recession. Politicians are very lucky or unlucky depending on the economic circumstances, and he was very lucky. He got out of office in 2007, and besides 2001 where we had a dip in tourism after the Sept. 11 attacks, the time he was governor was a pretty good economy. We still had a lot of structural issues in the Florida economy just like the national economy, a huge disparity in wealth, but in general, things were going pretty well. I think his educational proposals have come under fire, and now we don't even call the Florida testing regimen, we don't call it Common Core; it's the Florida Standards. I think if the recession had not come along, his educational policy would probably be what people remember him for more, but because the recession was so bad and because, frankly, Charlie Crist followed by Rick Scott have not been particularly effective governors ... You can argue about Jeb Bush's policies, but he got stuff done.

People remember him generally favorably because the economy was doing a lot better than it has been since he's been out of office. I can tell you, among the political class and the Republican Party, they're all behind him. They're ready to go, which is unusual. With a rising star like Sen. Rubio, it's amazing how much of the Florida political class on the Republican side has rallied around Gov. Bush. Sen. Rubio must be wondering, what in the world? But it really is happening. Now, I think Sen. Rubio is still going to run but he's not going to get most of his money from Florida. Of course, if you get one of the two Koch brothers you don't need anybody else, right?

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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