Jeb Bush does not want to be vice president. That’s what he says when he's asked directly, but he really proves it when he’s talking about everything else. On issues from budget policy to leadership style to immigration, Bush, one of the most popular national Republicans, is a man out of step with his party. This does not mean he likes President Obama. He wants him out of office. He'd shove him if he could, for his repeated attacks on his brother if nothing else. But after listening to the two-term Florida governor talk to a group of reporters at a breakfast hosted by Bloomberg View on Monday morning, it's not clear how Bush could ever be the nominee of a party he says would no longer support his father or Ronald Reagan.
It's not just that Bush's policy prescriptions on topics like immigration and tackling the deficit are a challenge to party orthodoxy. He also describes a more pragmatic vision of leadership—where accomplishments are valued over ideological purity—that seems deeply at odds with conservative calls for maximum constancy. This is perhaps the freedom enjoyed by those who are not running for president. But the formula Bush offers does reflect on the man who is running: Jeb Bush is describing a hole in American politics, and Mitt Romney is not necessarily the man to fill it.
"We're in decline which distinguishes us historically from where we've been," says Bush, who sees the economy shuffling along with anemic growth for the next year, no matter who wins in November. His solutions for getting out of the rut are less policy-specific—he doesn't have a grand plan about Medicare vouchers or getting rid of the home mortgage interest deduction. He's more focused on the temperament of governing.
As a former governor, it's not surprising where he finds the best examples of leaders who are free of Washington orthodoxy and getting things done: "Just about any statehouse in the country." He singles out Indiana Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels and Colorado Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper for their effectiveness. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also gets praise. Among his qualities: He knows how to "cut a deal." Bush is not making a pitch for moderation or watered-down conservative principles, but for conservatism that goes beyond a talking point.
"Ronald Reagan would have … a hard time if you define the Republican Party—and I don’t—as having an orthodoxy that doesn’t allow for disagreement, doesn’t allow for finding some common ground," Bush said, adding that he views the partisan sclerosis as "temporary."
"Back to my dad’s time and Ronald Reagan’s time—they got a lot of stuff done with a lot of bipartisan support," he said. Today Reagan "would be criticized for doing the things that he did."
If Bush is critical of his party, he is contemptuous of the Democrats. While he’s vague about the GOP, he drills down to specifics about Democrats. In every detail, you can hear how they eat at him—from the Democratic members of the House budget committee "who just read what some 20- or 25-year-old has handed them" to the Senate's inability to come up with a budget.
President Obama's big failing, says Bush, was his refusal to embrace the Simpson-Bowles commission he set up to find a way to reduce budget deficits. It was a failure of leadership, says Bush, who argues that had the president fought for the plan and lost, he would not have suffered politically. "Presidents matter, and this president lost his chance to be a transcendent figure." Leadership, he argues, would have been the president's own political reward. "Had he tried with sincerity and tried hard, he could make a compelling case ‘Conservatives are against me, they're not for advancing the broader interests of this country.’ "
This is a common complaint about Obama's leadership, and it doesn’t seem to take into account that Obama showed just that kind of leadership pushing for health care reform.
Asked to offer a bold example of presidential leadership, Bush pointed to his father's 1990 budget deal. It was undeniably an act of political bravery; the elder Bush betrayed his conservative base in order to reach a deal to reduce the deficit. "It created the spending restraint of the ‘90s more than anything else that was helpful in creating a climate of more sustained economic growth."