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The Bush Not Taken

Mike Hall

He didn’t smile.

At the culmination of his political career, Dubya forgot to smile.

While his wife, his aides, and even staid Dick Cheney were beaming last week as confetti and balloons rained down upon the Philadelphia convention stage, Gov. George W. Bush looked as thrilled as a new hire at the local DMV.

Dubya, the GOP’s most uninterested candidate since William Howard Taft, drifted through the acceptance speech much has he has drifted his way through life. In a meandering speech that spent five minutes on policy and thirty minutes on ad hominem attacks and emotional appeal, the Great Right Hope offered the American people a typical, uninspiring buffet of increased defense spending, reduced taxes, and social conservatism.

After the right-wing backlash of 1992 and the sepia-toned Dole candidacy of 1996, the GOP should have nominated a dynamic, inspiring candidate to counter the Democrats’ youthful image. Sadly, Dubya seems increasingly less his own man and more a marionette, with his strings guided by his father and the old guard.

Dubya is not the candidate the Republicans needed. They needed someone with ambition, drive, and common sense about how to govern. They needed a smart candidate who would address social issues from a pragmatic standpoint, rather than bowing to conservative pressure.

Enter Jeb Bush, Dubya’s ambitious younger brother and Florida’s current governor. After the senior George Bush lost his reelection bid in 1992, family members and outsiders agreed that Jeb was the logical choice to regain the family honor for one simple reason: Jeb is everything that Dubya is not. While Dubya spent his youth dallying through high school and college, Jeb took the academic high road, graduating magna cum laude from the University of Texas. In contrast to Dubya’s failed oil ventures, Jeb was a success in business. After moving to Miami in 1980, Jeb established the Codina Group, which today is one of the most successful real estate firms in south Florida. While Dubya lost his first campaign (for Congress, in 1978) and failed to make an impact politically, Jeb acted on his ambitions and parlayed his business connections into political connections, becoming chairman of the Dade County Republican Party in 1984 and Florida’s Secretary of Commerce in 1987.

Heading into 1994, Jeb was primed to lead the Republicans nationally in his campaign for Florida governor. Jeb began meticulous preparations for his campaign against Democratic incumbent Lawton Chiles. Dubya, meanwhile, had finally found stability as a managing partner of the Texas Rangers baseball club. To the chagrin of Jeb, however, Dubya decided it was time for a career change and began a gubernatorial campaign in Texas against the formidable incumbent, Democrat Ann Richards.

The results seemingly were cast in stone, with the cerebral Jeb certain to ascend to the Florida throne while the apathetic Dubya suffered yet another defeat. But then the unexpected happened. Dubya’s “aw shucks” style, combined with key ideas lifted from Jeb’s platform, won accolades from mainstream Texans, while Richards’s populist appeal waned after she accepted donations from the media elite. In Florida, meanwhile, Jeb’s double-digit lead rapidly fell apart after his confrontational conservative message failed to resonate with the state’s moderate voting bloc. At election time, Jeb lost by percentage points to Chiles, while Dubya shocked the nation by winning his first political office. The family prophecy went unfulfilled. Dubya assumed Jeb’s mantle as political leader within both the family and the GOP.

Jeb was able to recover from his setback to score major electoral and political victories. Like Bill Clinton following his first election defeat, Jeb started anew immediately after his 1994 loss to Chiles, with an eye on the next election. After breaking ground with a “compassionate conservatism” message, he roared back into statewide favor and coasted into the governor’s mansion in 1998. Jeb moved quickly, accomplishing more in two years than Dubya had in six. In 1999, he pushed an innovative education reform plan through the Florida legislature. The plan grants vouchers to students from underperforming schools to attend any school, public or private, that meets the state’s strict standards for academic performance. The initiative has already prompted underperforming schools to hire additional instructors in writing and other subjects, raising some schools’ standardized test averages by up to 20 percent, and was followed by a $1.4 billion increase on K-12 educational spending, the largest in Florida history. Jeb also pushed for a series of tort reforms, a “three strikes” crime prevention law, and the elimination of race and ethnicity as factors in university admissions. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported that Jeb was so successful at pushing the legislature that he met all his major campaign goals by the end of the first session.

Regardless of his accomplishments, Jeb’s national authority diminishes proportionally as Dubya increases in prominence. Assuming Dubya wins the presidency this year, the earliest Jeb could run would be in 2008, because Dubya would be sure to run again in 2004. By 2008, however, the nation would probably desire a change from years of Bush in the White House, thus delaying or scuttling Jeb’s bid. By the time America’s Bush binge passes in 2012, Jeb will be almost 60 years old and would have been out of state office and national prominence for over six years.

By that time, Jeb’s telegenic son, George P. Bush, will have assumed his expected position as a U.S. senator or Texas governor. Twenty-four-year-old George P. already has ascended to national prominence, serving as the GOP convention’s youth chairman and earning a coveted prime-time speaking slot. Multiethnic, bilingual, and striking, George P. is assured of nearly any elected office he seeks in Florida or Texas. Depending on his rate of political ascent, he could be ready to assume the family mantle as early as 2016, shutting out his father in the process.

The greatest shame in this family trap is that the GOP loses Jeb’s shrewd political presence on the national scene. With Jeb, the GOP could have had a competent and proven executive. While Dubya may have better social prowess, Jeb’s shrewdness would have prevented embarrassments during the campaign and in the White House. Quayle-esque gaffes by Dubya down the line may make the GOP faithful wish that the other Bush would have headed the ticket.

Hell, at least Jeb smiled.