10.31.11

Jeb Knows Best

Despite repeated calls to jump into the 2012 race, Jeb Bush is staying on the sidelines, though he's urging his party to reject birtherism. The former governor tells Michelle Cottle he knows when to hold his tongue.

Jeb Bush may have figured out the secret to being a rare voice of authority in today’s political zoo: know when to keep your mouth shut.

“I learned shortly after leaving office that I didn’t have to have an opinion on everything,” the former two-term Florida governor told The Daily Beast via email this weekend. “But, if I feel strongly about something,” he adds, “I think it’s important to speak up.”

So it is that the scion of one of America’s most prominent political dynasties has kept a relatively low political profile since leaving office, only now and again popping up to comment on the issue du jour: the GOP’s need to campaign on something more than Obama hatred, the fairness of tuition breaks for the children of illegal immigrants, and, just last week, the need for Republicans to “categorically reject” birtherism. (Yes, Governor Perry, he’s looking at you.)

Perhaps as a result, on those occasions when the governor does speak, his utterances are received and repeated by the chattering class like royal proclamations. Indeed, nearly five years after leaving public office—and despite the problematic associations of his surname—Bush has managed, if anything, to rise in stature, emerging as a gravitas-wielding grown-up in a party lately seen as lacking just such specimens.

For much of this cycle, Bush was lobbied by fellow Republicans to serve as the party’s 2012 standard-bearer. With his prominence, record, and experience—not to mention his enduring popularity in the nation’s most populous swing state—the governor was considered the rare figure with the potential to unite the Tea Party and establishment wings of the GOP. Think Chris Christie with a national profile! Tim Pawlenty with a personality! Perry with a maybe-I-shouldn’t-say-that filter!

Concerns about Bush fatigue notwithstanding, Draft Jeb websites began popping up, and party eminences came calling. In February, the conservative National Review devoted a cover to the governor’s greatness, while its editor pleaded with him to run, baby, run.

Even at this late hour, some of the Republican faithful cling to the dream that Jeb will step in to save the day.

“He needs to jump into the race now,” says veteran strategist John Feehery. “Otherwise, we may have four more years of Obama.”

For his part, the governor says, “I’m flattered by people’s continued support. But I am not running. I am thoroughly enjoying the freedom that comes with being a private citizen. I can spend more time with my family and still be involved in policy issues that I am passionate about.”

Singular among these is education reform. Immediately upon leaving office in 2007, Bush picked the subject as his policy focus, and threw himself into it. He founded the Excellence in Education Foundation to promote school reforms based on “the Florida model” he put in place as governor.

With its focus on high-stakes testing and vouchers, the foundation’s work has its critics. But Bush makes an effort to avoid coming across as overtly partisan. Former New York City schools chancellor (and Clinton official) Joel Klein is on the foundation’s board. And, earlier this year, President Obama headed south to tour a Miami high school with Bush, thanking the governor for his labors and lauding him as “a champion of education reform.”

“I’ve found education reform to be an area where Democrats and Republicans can find common ground and work together,” says Bush, when asked about the challenges of getting both political teams to the table in this polarized climate. “I will work with whoever shares my same policy principles,” he says, adding, “When I disagree, I try to disagree respectfully, as my parents taught me.”

In addition to boosting his credibility as a nonpartisan problem solver, Bush’s reform work gives him the opportunity to tour the country giving speeches, hosting conferences, and chatting up reform-minded local officials. Just this month, he convened a conference in San Francisco focused on people who are “unleashing the power of technology to transform education.” Bush proclaims it to have been “an incredible two days.”

Bush's rare utterances are received and repeated by the chattering class like royal proclamations.

Through these kinds of events, the governor’s name stays simultaneously “out there,” yet above the increasingly toxic muck of elective politics. Even when it comes to the combative GOP primary field, Bush is studiously diplomatic: “I think a robust debate in the primary is healthy for our party and for our future nominee. I look forward to campaigning for that person.”

As for the state of Republican leadership more generally, he praises the party’s “incredible bench of leaders,” singling out governors Mitch Daniels, Brian Sandoval, and Bobby Jindal. It is perhaps noteworthy that none of those he mentions is running for president—or is even among the louder voices on the national stage.

As for his political future, Bush is keeping the door cracked. Asked about a 2016 presidential run, he teases, “I think my standard answer has been, I’ve learned to never say never.” Then he adds, “But I also haven’t ruled out being a quarterback in the NFL.”