Jeb Bush Gives Party Something to Think About

Michael Barbaro
The New York Times
May 24, 2014
Link to Original Article

As governor of Florida, Jeb Bush flew in Ivy League social scientists for daylong seminars with his staff and carved out time for immersive brainstorming sessions he called “think weeks.”

A voracious reader, he maintains a queue of 25 volumes on his Kindle (George Gilder’s “Knowledge and Power” among them, he said) and routinely sends fan mail to his favorite authors.

A self-described nerd, he is known to travel with policy journals and send all-hours inquiries to think tanks. (A sample Bush question: What are the top five ways to achieve 4 percent economic growth?)

As Mr. Bush, 61, weighs whether to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, he is dogged by fears of voter exhaustion with a family name indelibly linked to his older brother, a self-assured Texan who prized instinct over expertise and once acknowledged a lack of interest in slogging through long books.

But in ways big and small, deliberate or subconscious, the younger Mr. Bush seems to have defined himself as the anti-George W. Bush: an intellectual in search of new ideas, a serial consulter of outsiders who relishes animated debate and a probing manager who eagerly burrows into the bureaucratic details.

Allies said that reputation — as what the Republican strategist Karl Rove called the “deepest thinker on our side” — could prove vital in selling Mr. Bush as a presidential candidate to an electorate still scarred by George W. Bush’s legacy of costly wars abroad and economic meltdown at home.

But the bookishness and pragmatism that strike mainstream Republican leaders as virtues highlight the potential difficulty that Mr. Bush may face in igniting the passions of more conservative members of the party.

The questions he grapples with most frequently, and enthusiastically, revolve around improving the effectiveness of government in areas like education, immigration and criminal justice. It is a message unlikely to electrify Tea Party and libertarian wings of his party that are openly hostile to the very idea of government.

“There is skepticism that maybe Jeb Bush wants too much government in people’s lives,” said Greg Mueller, a Republican strategist who has advised the presidential campaigns of Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes and Bob Dole. “I don’t know that he will ever win over the limited-government conservatives.”

Mr. Bush, who has cast himself as a party reformer, seems unfazed by such critiques: At times, he has appeared to deliberately fan them by publicly castigating the leaders of his own party for adhering to failed tactics and outdated messages.

After Mitt Romney’s resounding defeat in 2012, in a presidential campaign that struggled to leaven its harsh tone with an optimistic vision for governing, Mr. Bush was unsparing, warning that the Republican brand risked becoming a millstone, “associated with being anti-everything.” Much of the electorate, he said, believes that “Republicans are anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-worker.”

Those who have hashed over policy and politics with Mr. Bush describe him as a conservative animated less by rigid ideology than a technocrat’s quest to identify which solutions work best.

“He’s not interested in proving some sort of conservative point that less government is better, though he might believe that,” said Philip K. Howard, the author of influential books about law and government, who has spoken frequently with Mr. Bush. “In all of my dealings with him, he’s interested in how you make government deliver effectively. What are the incentives? How do you hold people accountable?” He added: “These are the discussions, frankly, that you want government leaders to have.”

Friends and former aides have variously described him as a “policy wonk,” an “ideas junkie” and, as Arthur C. Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, called him, “a top-drawer intellect.”

It is a cerebral image that Mr. Bush readily and conspicuously embraces, inviting inevitable — and not always flattering — comparisons with his brother. (While George W. Bush, 67, left Yale with gentleman’s C’s after four years, Jeb Bush raced through the University of Texas in two and a half, graduating Phi Beta Kappa.) He insisted, for example, that his official portrait as governor contain a bookcase filled with his most beloved titles, among them “Cross Creek,” a memoir by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

These days, the younger Mr. Bush peppers his speeches with statistics, academic-sounding references to “quintiles” and self-deprecating jokes about his own geekiness. A few weeks ago, he boasted to a crowd of Republican donors that he was “nerdy enough” to read City Journal, an obscure policy magazine published by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, then recited the names of his favorite writers at the publication.

Aubrey Jewett, who has studied Jeb Bush as a professor of political science at the University of Central Florida, said he “seems to go out of his way to make it clear that he’s different from his brother, by the way he talks about himself, his goals and the details of public policy.”

And how he governed. Under Mr. Bush, who served from 1999 to 2007, the Florida governor’s office at times resembled a mini-university. New employees showed up to find a copy of a treasured Bush book on their desks: “A Message to Garcia,” the inspirational 1899 essay about a United States soldier who journeyed to Cuba to win the alliance of a rebel leader.

He created a speakers series, inviting Colin L. Powell, the former secretary of state, and Virginia Postrel, a prominent cultural writer, to the Statehouse to speak to his cabinet. And he participated in an informal staff book club that churned through works of literary fiction, like Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” and sociological tracts, including Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone.”

The approach, aides said, suffused his government, which became a hothouse for ambitious, mostly conservative policy programs. They included assigning A through F grades to public schools, offering performance bonuses to government workers, privatizing many public services  and, through billions of dollars in land purchases, locking in the conservation of the Everglades.

“It was this culture of creativity and intellectual curiosity,” said Brian Yablonski, who ran Mr. Bush’s policy office and remains a confidant. “It permeated everything.”

Even Mr. Bush’s time off. Inspired by Bill Gates, he sent out a request to current and former staff members for bold new ideas, serious or whimsical, and took the resulting stack of proposals with him on vacation for “think week.” (One proposal: allowing Florida towns to buy and sell water on the open market, like electricity.)

Not everyone was impressed. Democratic-leaning outsiders groused that his administration had been co-opted by conservative think tanks, like the Hoover, Cato and Manhattan institutes, whose proposals Mr. Bush openly borrowed.

“I don’t think he had any ideas of his own,” said Robert E. Crew Jr., an associate dean at Florida State University who chronicled Mr. Bush’s governorship in a 2009 book, “Jeb Bush: Aggressive Conservatism in Florida.”

But there is little dispute over Mr. Bush’s firm command of government’s smallest details. He surprised aides by reading voluminous bills in their entirety and embarrassed ill-prepared advisers with his mastery of their projects.

Allison DeFoor, a top environmental adviser to Mr. Bush, recalled having to abruptly cut short his first briefing with the new governor, about the Everglades, amid a battery of questions that he was unable to answer. Aides called the ignominious session “Black Monday.”

“I have never been brought up that short in 40 years in government,” Mr. DeFoor said.

Just as daunting: keeping pace with Mr. Bush’s crowded and sober-minded reading list. “I read more than one book at a time these days,” he said in an email. “I think it is because it’s easy to download books on Kindle.”

Colleagues try their best. After she was repeatedly asked by Mr. Bush what she was reading, Toni Jennings, one of his lieutenant governors, scaled back her consumption of page-turning thrillers by James Patterson and Harlan Coben.

Instead, she reluctantly switched over to her boss’s brand of dense nonfiction.

“Sometimes,” she conceded, “it would take me a month to get through those books.”