Paul Brandus: The far right fears Jeb Bush’s success
One of the more memorable moments during the last presidential campaign was a GOP debate in August, 2011. Fox’s Bret Baier asked the eight candidates if they would agree to $ 1 in new taxes for every $ 10 in sending cuts. Not one person raised his (or her) hand. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Richard Nixon—all tax hikers at one point or another during their presidencies—would have raised their hands, and might have been booed off stage. That’s how much the Republican party has changed.
Which brings us to Jeb Bush. During his eight years as governor of Florida (1999-2007), “King Jeb,” as some opponents dubbed him, cut taxes big time—$ 19 billion in all—and this in a state that had no income tax to begin with. But Bush, like his father, isn’t opposed to bringing in new revenue if the times call for it.
“If you could bring to me a majority of people to say that we’re going to have $ 10 in spending cuts for $ 1 of revenue enhancement — put me in, coach,” he said while testifying to a Congressional committee in 2012. Which explains why he’s never signed the no-tax pledge that has been shoved down the throats of most other Republicans by Grover Norquist, the never-elected-to-anything anti-tax bully. Sign my pledge, Norquist threatens quivering Republicans—or we’ll campaign against you. The only major candidates with the cojones to reject this extortion have been Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
“I ran for office three times. The pledge was presented to me three times. I never signed [it]. I cut taxes every year I was governor,” Bush said. “I don’t believe you outsource your principles and convictions to people.”
This level-headed pragmatism has earned Bush plenty of enemies on the GOP’s far right, which has hijacked the party in the post-Reagan era and yanked it further from the center where presidential elections are won or lost.
For all their current success—controlling both the House and Senate (thanks to gerrymandering and two-thirds of the electorate staying home last November)—Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. The one national vote they did win, Bush’s 2004 defeat of John Kerry, had a margin of just 2.4 points. The GOP needs to end its quadrennial flirtation with inexperienced right-wingers who have no hope of winning 270 electoral votes—Santorum and Cain in 2012, Cruz, et al now—and find an experienced, mainstream guy with a marketable track record. Instead they’re about to engage in another round of fratricide and brand Jeb Bush the enemy because he’d accept a dime in taxes for a dollar in cuts. Crazy.
For more reasonable conservatives, however, it’s easy to see the economic attraction in Bush. Beyond the steady tax cuts, he slashed red tape, reduced the state payroll 6.6% and vetoed more than $ 2 billion in new spending initiatives. Florida’s rainy day fund, $ 1.3 billion when he was sworn in, swelled to nearly $ 10 billion when he left. Credit markets were pleased, giving the sunshine state its first ever Triple-A rating. It was all part of an ambitious conservative agenda full of what Bush called “big, hairy, audacious goals,” — or “BHAGs.”
This fiscal and monetary strength reflected a booming state economy, which by some measures outpaced that of the country at large. The national unemployment rate, 4.3% in January 1999, rose to 4.6% by January 2007, but in Bush’s Florida, it fell from 4.1% to 3.5%. When he left office in 2007, Florida ranked 8th in the nation on CNBC’s list of best states for business.
If being a governor is the best training one can get prior to becoming president, Bush’s economic record, on the surface, is one to be envied.
But there are blemishes. While it’s true Florida cranked out jobs under Jeb Bush, too much of this growth—like that of the nation as a whole between 1999-2007—was in the low-wage service sector. Not exactly the backbone of the 21st-century economy he’s always talking about. Judging by his closely-watched economic speech in Detroit, it’s clear that a central theme of Bush’s campaign will focus on boosting skills and economic mobility among the middle-class. Bush has also called for an overhaul of immigration laws to allow more high-tech workers into the U.S. He’s also a free trader. In other words, he’s just like Barack Obama.
And there are inconsistencies. In Detroit, he said Washington must “embrace reform everywhere, especially in our government.” In Florida he spoke of smaller government too—yet grew the state’s budget 52% on his watch, from $ 48.6 billion in 1999 to $ 73.9 billion in 2006. This rate of growth exceeded that of the state’s economy, notes Dominic Calabro of Florida Tax Watch, a non-partisan watchdog. And while he cut the state payroll, many services those workers did were merely outsourced to private companies with little oversight; multi-million dollar cost overruns often resulted. “There were problems with planning and execution,” says Calabro.“It was often done too quickly and not too well, but most things he outsourced got better over time.” The mistakes he made in haste and lessons learned could bode well if Bush, as president, tries to outsource parts of the federal government—God knows much of it certainly can be.
Bush may also have to answer for something else from a generation ago. The real estate collapse that began right after he left office (good timing is everything in politics) devastated Florida, wiping out countless homeowners. In 2009, he took a harsh view of the Obama stimulus, which unquestionably had waste, and unquestionably was driven in part by Obama’s liberal agenda (in fairness it also included tax cuts, propped up the jobs of cops, teachers and rebuilt roads).
Since Bush’s criticism came a year after Congress approved the stimulus, surely he knew that a good-sized chunk of it was designed to prop up the real estate market. Yet Bush wasn’t opposed to taking that kind of help for himself—as he did two decades before during the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The long and short of it: Bush and a business partner gladly accepted a $ 4.565 million federal bailout in connection with a Miami office building they owned. It was just one tiny deal in the massive S&L bailout of that era, whose final price tag has been pegged at $ 481 billion. In an interview at the time, Bush described himself as a “victim of circumstance” and claimed he had nothing to do with the multi-million dollar bailout that kept his deal afloat.
It’s pretty audacious to take a $ 4.6 million handout while complaining that you’re a victim. The middle class that Bush wants to help will surely want an answer to that one.