As it happens, I'm in the mood to defend the Bush who's about to leave office. But that's for a future column. Right now, my attention is on the Bush who has been out of office for a few years. The president's younger brother, Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, is living a successful life as a private citizen and policy wonk, working primarily on education reform. But just after Thanksgiving, Florida's Republican senator, Mel Martinez, announced that he will not be running for re-election in 2010. And with that news, we learned the future of Jeb Bush.
Mind you, if the world were a different place, I might be writing you in two years explaining what a great presidential candidate Jeb Bush would be for the Republicans. But judging by today's political climate, that option seems far-fetched. Is that fair? Not really. Not only was Jeb Bush one of the most conservative governors -- the kind with real executive skill whom the GOP should be looking toward for leadership -- but one of the best, period.
And though the Oval Office may be out of sight for Jeb, that's OK. Right now, our ailing government needs a good man from Florida to head to Washington and shake things up. Bush clearly has his eye on Martinez's seat, and nearly every Florida wag I've talked to says that he would win it easily. "I think he'd really add a lot to the debate in Congress," one admirer and longtime Washington aide told me upon returning from Florida this week. The comment gelled with everything I had been hearing from sources close to Bush and politicos in the state.
Running against the Washington establishment has been a resonant campaign strategy this year. Mitt Romney didn't win the Republican presidential nomination, but gained traction during the primary campaign with his claims that Washington is broken. Barack Obama -- even though he was a U.S. senator at the time -- did something similar. John McCain -- even though he's been a creature of the capital for decades -- followed suit. Radio-talk-show host Sean Hannity echoes the sentiment daily. People aren't happy with Washington.
The Senate probably epitomizes the problem; fairly or unfairly, since my days as an intern on Capitol Hill, I've never liked the Senate. In contrast, there's something feisty and idealistic about the House, where, on its best days, ideas get generated, debated, tried and tested. You have Young Turks who may not hold power, but who can form alliances, refocus attention in important ways and make some headway where leadership never could or would on its own. The Senate, on the other hand, sits in a morass of deliberation. In place of the House's boldness, there lurks a cloying, clubby atmosphere, and the rank musk of ambition run amok. How would Jeb shake up Washington? Well, for one thing, he wouldn't be running for president in two or any number of years.
And though his name might suggest the past, he is very much part of what the Republican Party needs right now. He's got a record of conservative governance in a big state under some tough conditions, as well as some experience under the national spotlight. One politico close to the former governor calls him downright "inspiring" in private and in public in the wake of the current GOP loss.
"We can't be Democrat Lite. We can't just 'get along,'" Bush said in a recent interview. "We have to actually be proposing solutions to what appear to be intractable problems as it relates to education, health care, infrastructure. Across the board, there are ways that we can show that we are truly on the side of the people and that we are concerned about the future of the country, without abandoning our principles."
Of course, having been in Florida a few times this fall, I keep telling fellow Northeasterners that I probably wouldn't ever want to leave the Sunshine State if I were a resident there. And that's a real consideration for Bush's future prospects. One think-tank conservative in Florida told me of Bush: "I think he'd make a formidable candidate, but I also think that he and -- especially -- his wife, Columba, enjoy living in South Florida, more or less out of the spotlight. I also think that he enjoys working in the private sector while also continuing his quest to reform education. He was very much in his element last June during the national 'Education Summit' that the James Madison Institute and Mr. Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education co-sponsored."
But Bush may also have been in his element because he loves policy and effecting change. He loves leading. And, making clear that he is taking the Senate run seriously, he obviously sees an opportunity and an opening for the Bush who will probably never be president, but may end up in Washington anyway. Run, Jeb, run, I'd say.