Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Bush by Any Other Name

When catastrophe comes along, it opens a market for solutions. For the Republican Party, which has been shellacked in the last two American elections, this means every conservative with a platform is selling some prescription for a comeback.

From David Frum to Rush Limbaugh to Newt Gingrich and beyond, there is no shortage of alchemists who claim they can convert the GOP’s recent lead-balloon performances into electoral gold. History will judge whether some, none, or all of these people were correct, but there is one advocate to whom Republicans pay particular attention: former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

As the son and brother of former American Presidents, Jeb Bush is a person of unique prominence and privilege. He is also anomalous among his Republican colleagues inasmuch as he has maintained some measure of personal popularity, while the party itself has fallen out of favour.

Recently, at the Greenville, South Carolina, home of former U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Wilkins (who was appointed by the governor’s brother, President George W. Bush), Jeb Bush laid out his four-point plan for a Republican rebound.

First, Gov. Bush advises that Republicans must recruit new, exciting candidates for the 2010 Congressional elections, while supporting deserving incumbents. Prosaic as this may seem, it is easier said than done. The GOP is in the minority and the tone in Washington, D.C, is as dyspeptic as ever, so it will take some doing to coax quality folks into the contest.

As for supporting Republican incumbents, which ones are deserving and which should go? With the Democrats already within one Senate seat of a filibuster-proof majority, such decisions could mean the difference between a Republican comeback and irrelevance.

Next, Gov. Bush insists the GOP must, “Advocate ideas.” He points out that both Republicans and Democrats have lost Congressional majorities in recent decades because they failed to express their core beliefs, articulately and consistently, between elections. “You can’t just think that people are going to support you because you’re in power,” he observes, adding that his chastened party can, “Regain power by humility.”

Third, he urges the GOP to be forward-looking and eschew nostalgia: “As much as I love Ronald Reagan...the world has radically changed. The world is moving at warp speed and our politics is moving like a tortoise.” By focusing on today’s challenges, rather than the glory days, Republicans can reclaim their relevance to voters, Jeb avers.

Finally, the GOP must, “Get better at the game.” Bush notes that his brother’s victorious 2004 campaign was the last 20th century-style election, with mailers and phone calls and traditional tactics. In 2008, the contest went viral, with Internet-based fundraising and organizing ruling the day. But as the game changed, the GOP did not, and the results speak for themselves. To regain power, Republicans must adopt modern methods.

Jeb Bush’s plan, compact and cogent, is delivered with the calm objectivity of an accomplished fellow who is not running for anything in particular. No longer looking for votes, he is asking folks for nothing more than a few moments of their attention.

But what gives Jeb Bush special resonance among Republicans? Some might suggest that he would never have been governor of Florida in the first place, were it not for his family name, and that’s fair enough. Even so, it was not his surname that achieved high approval ratings for two terms as he contended with hurricanes, health care and education reform, nor was it the Bush moniker that made him the only Republican governor to be re-elected in the Sunshine State.

And it is not as though the Bush brand has been wildly popular in recent years. But just as his host in South Carolina, Ambassador Wilkins, was consistently more popular in Canada than the president who appointed him, so Jeb Bush has crafted a political identity that is distinct from those who share his name.

In fact, if Jeb’s surname were anything but Bush, as the popular two-term chief executive of America’s most important swing state, he very likely would have appeared on the Republican presidential ticket in 2008.

Folks reflexively ask if Jeb Bush will ever run for president. The answer is a definite maybe. At 56 years of age, he could toss his hat into the ring anytime during the next four or more presidential election cycles. Even if he were to wait until 2024, Jeb would still be younger than the 2008 GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain, was on Election Day.

More important than the chronology is Jeb Bush’s sense of service. The governor plainly believes in working for the good of his nation, but he seems genuinely undecided as to if and when he will ever do so again in public office. Such thinking is consistent with the tenets of conservatism and citizen government, whereby individuals put forward the better angels of their nature as an onus of citizenship, not a function of getting elected.

At the moment, the governor comments on those policy issues that mean the most to him, especially education, and he campaigns only for those Republican candidates in whom he truly believes. He receives many invitations to speak on behalf of the party, but he notes that as a private citizen, “I get to pick and choose.” Together with his son, Jeb Jr., the governor has founded Jeb Bush and Associates, LLC, which is involved in a variety of business projects, including infrastructure and consultancy.

Through his years as governor and since rejoining the private sector in 2007, Jeb Bush has shown himself to be less a political family scion than a candid and clear policy advocate. Whether or not he holds office again, he remains a person of consequence.

Theo Caldwell, President of Caldwell Asset
Management, Inc., is an investment advisor in the United States and Canada.