Jeb Bush: On Running ‘Joyfully’

Photograph by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, right, speaks at the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Tampa, Florida, on Aug. 30, 2012.

Sometimes a great notion: Running for president ”joyfully.”

Amid all the political tumult of the past few weeks — with one of the Republican Party’s best prospects for president mired in a political traffic jam, and the Democrats’ top candidate facing renewed questions about a spouse’s infidelity in the White House — the idea that one might actually run “joyfully” for president in 2016 rang out as an emotional oddity.

This was Jeb Bush’s take on a decision that he has avoided for a long time.

“I don’t wake up each day saying, ‘What am I going to do today to make this decision?’” Bush, the former two-term governor of Florida, son of one president and brother of another, said during a tour of a Hialeah schoolhouse last week.

“I’m deferring the decision to the right time, which is later this year, and the decision will be based on, can I do it joyfully, because I think we need to have candidates lift our spirits,” said Bush, 60. “It’s a pretty pessimistic country right now — and is it right for my family? So I don’t even want to think about that till it’s the right time, and that’s later on.”

It’s difficult to imagine being too joyful about this campaign that your own mother has suggested belongs to some other family — any family but the two who have dominated the national political stage for more than two decades. Barbara Bush’s son offered a little joke about Mother’s Day after the last remark.

On the other hand, he could be starting from a happier place than New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie finds himself in today, facing relentless public questions — and his office under federal investigation — about what he knew about a traffic jam on the George Washington Bridget last fall and when he knew it. Christie has handled the latest insinuations about his personal involvement by dragging the alleged high school scandals of his own appointee to the Port Authority through the email mud.

And at least one other potential Republican contender has signaled that he intends to allow no happy slack for Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, senator from New York and first lady whose husband, President Bill Clinton, was impeached for telling untruths to federal prosecutors about his relationship with a White House intern.  When NBC”s David Gregory asked Paul about his wife’s comment that Bill Clinton is ineligible to serve as first man in light of his “predatory” behavior with Monica Lewinsky, Paul said there was “no excuse” for preying on a young intern and it should color  history’s view of the 42nd president. It wasn’t Hillary Clinton’s fault, he said, yet  “sometimes it’s hard to separate one from the other.” On Fox News, Paul alluded to the saga as “workplace violence.”

If this is the level of debate among a field of people who haven’t declared their candidacies yet almost three years out from Election Day 2016, imagine what the caucus chatter and primary parlance in the winter of 2015-16 will sound like.

Joyful?

It’s worth remembering that the first time Jeb Bush ran for governor of Florida, in 1994, he ran tough on crime. The Sunshine State would be making sure prison inmates worked for their keep, he promised in that campaign.

In one 60-second campaign ad, Bush said: “We lead the nation in violent crime. We’re near the top in school dropouts. We’ve had 50 tax increases in the last 10 years and doubled welfare in the past five. What’ll happen if we don’t change? What happens if we don’t even try? That’s why I’m putting together a new kind of campaign for governor. To make criminals work and serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. Limit welfare to just two years and give people the right to vote on all state tax increases.”

Between his first, losing campaign for governor and his first successful one in ’98, Bush founded the Foundation for Florida’s Future, which joined with the Greater Miami Urban League to open a charter school in Liberty City, an impoverished inner-city part of Miami. He was planting the seeds for the same “compassionate conservativism” on which his older brother ran for president in 2000 — George W. Bush having won that first governor’s race of his own in Texas the year Jeb Bush lost.  George Bush would seek the White House in 2000 with education reforms challenging “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Jeb Bush, when he won in Florida in ’98, had already run on education reform, an “A+ Plan” ultimately enacted into law before his brother’s “No Child Left Behind Act.”

Jeb Bush was asked, in that second campaign, if he was having more fun campaigning on education than on crime, and he said, yes, he was.

It was a more joyful campaign for him, particularly the winning part.

Since leaving office in 2007, and forgoing a chance to seek an open Senate seat from Florida, Bush has returned to education reform.  As leader of his Foundation for Excellence in Education, he has held well-attended summits from coast to coast. And where was he caught making his last pronouncement about the joy of politics? In a schoolhouse — a Latin Builders Association charter school.

As opposed to that compassionate conservative who campaigned in 1999 and 2000, the brother who says he’s still thinking about 2016 calls himself a “practicing conservative.” He’s written a book about immigration reform which advocated the path that House Republican leaders are now promoting for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already living in the U.S. — “a path to permanent legal resident status” — as opposed to the citizenship offered by a Senate-passed bill.

“Look, I’m a conservative and I’m a practicing one, not a talk-about-it one,” Bush said recently. “I would put my record up against anybody that’s in Congress right now.”

Might that include Paul or Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas?

Son George P. Bush, after all, is running for land commissioner in Texas.

Land? It’s all about education, remember.

The younger Bush is the Hispanic candidate in the family, son of a Texan-born father and Mexican-born mother — no minor assets for a party that lost 71 percent of the presidential vote among Hispanics in 2012.

“I’m trying to avoid the family conversation to be honest with you. I want to defer that to when it matters,” Bush said at an appearance at the 92nd Street Y in New York in November. “There’s a time to make a decision. You shouldn’t make it too early, you shouldn’t make it too late. There’s a time. There’s a window. And this is not the time for me. This is the time to show a little self-restraint.”

Self-restraint, as compared with joy.

What could be more fun than another Bush-Clinton run?

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