Some political pundits have said if it were not for his last name, he might have been the Republican nominee for president this year. But former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush tells me he is happy to support the McCain-Palin ticket, which he predicts, perhaps predictably, will win.
Of Alaska’s Gov. Sarah Palin, he says, “She has generated so much enthusiasm, which was the one element of the campaign that was completely missing.”
I ask him what he thinks Republicans must do - regardless of the election outcome - to win back a congressional majority and the trust of the public. Noting that House Minority Leader John Boehner has confessed to “mistakes” committed by Republicans when they held the majority, Mr. Bush says, “I guess admitting you’re a sinner is the first step on the road to redemption.” He still believes too many of the party leaders are “in denial” about why they lost their majority. So what must the GOP do now?
“I think the Republican Party needs to stand for reform,” he says, “within the context of our ideology, which is limited government.” Mr. Bush thinks too many institutions are stuck in “the ‘50s, ‘60s, or maybe ‘70s. They’re not relevant in 2008.” He mentions job training. “We have billions of dollars of job training programs, but world and corporate structures have been radically altered. … If you walked into a job training center now, it may not have Formica, or a ‘70s look, but it would have a ‘70s feel in terms of the services being provided… same thing with education and health care, entitlement programs, common-sense environmental policy. There should be a zeal for reform. And I’d look outside Washington for those models, typically led by governors.”
Mr. Bush wants to revive the model of the Grace Commission used by Ronald Reagan to eliminate wasteful and unnecessary government programs. “Some states - and Florida is one of them - have sunset reviews. Why can’t every [federal] government agency be sunsetted?” This, he says, would allow people to ask if the program or agency is necessary and “I think it would generate enormous enthusiasm outside of Washington.”
One issue on which Jeb Bush believes Republicans dropped the ball was Social Security and Medicare reform. “I was disappointed that the Republicans didn’t rally around [the president],” he says. It wasn’t just Democrats being opposed to it. I think it was the gutless nature of a lot of Republicans in Congress. This was the beginning of what I saw as the demise. When they had a chance to unite behind the president to advance a solution to this ticking time bomb, some did, but many blinked.” Still, he thinks that because his brother touched the notorious third rail and didn’t blink, it will be easier for a new president to enact meaningful and necessary reform of Social Security and Medicare.
Mr. Bush thinks whoever wins the presidential election will have an opportunity to institute reforms, though he says Mr. McCain would be the better reformer. “Sen. Obama hasn’t proved himself capable yet to take on one of his core constituencies. His is an orthodox candidacy wrapped in an unorthodox campaign. The veneer is amazingly new and eloquent, but he won’t upset one of his core constituencies of the Democratic Party and people are becoming aware of it.”
Jeb Bush, the brother of one president and the son of another, is proud of both men. And he thinks history will treat the current President Bush far better than opinion polls do now: “I think when people look back on this period they are going to admire his resolve and they’re going to say he was right. They’ll also say that after Sept. 11, 2001, there was the feeling that it was the first of a series of attacks on our country and it didn’t happen. That is a heck of an accomplishment [and while] no credit will be given now, in the long run he will get credit for it.”
Jeb Bush says he has no “burning desire” to be president and didn’t “before, during” and now after being governor. History, however, has a way of igniting such desire and his day may yet come. He could very well be the next member of the “Bush dynasty” to become president.
Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.