Jeb Bush says he’s the man to fix the partisan gridlock and dysfunction in Washington. It just takes a willingness to find common ground and reach across the aisle to work with people who may often disagree with you.
“I don’t assume it’s my way or the highway,” Florida’s former governor recently told a woman who asked at the Iowa State Fair how his style differs from Donald Trump’s.
Jeb Bush, consensus-builder? That’s not the leadership style most people remember from his eight years as governor.
“His style is my way or the highway,” said former Florida House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, a Republican who supported most of Bush’s agenda but is undecided for 2016. “The whole time I worked with him, he never listened to me or anybody else in the process. If Mitch McConnell and John Boehner think they’re going to have a great relationship with President Jeb Bush, they better watch out.”
Former Republican state Sen. Nancy Argenziano, who several times opposed pieces of Bush’s agenda, recalled little appetite for compromise or negotiation from the governor: “If you don’t agree with him on something, there is no making it better. It’s my way or hit the highway.”
A central part of Bush’s campaign argument for the Republican presidential nomination is that he has what it takes to fix what’s wrong with Washington: Barack Obama failed to deliver on his promise to end gridlock; Bush can do it.
“I know how to do this. Because I was a reform-minded governor who got things done in a very purple state — Florida,” Bush said, contrasting his record with Obama’s.
But President Obama faced something Gov. Bush never did: Divided government.
“It wasn’t like he was dealing with a Democratic Legislature and he had to forge consensus to get things done,” said Ron Klein, a former congressman and state Senate Democratic leader from Boca Raton. “He was the first Republican governor to have a totally Republican Legislature. It was very compliant with him because generally they were on the same page with a lot of his very Republican views, and also they wanted to make the first Republican governor in a long time look good.”
Decisive? Few people would disagree with that description of Gov. Bush from 1999 to 2007. Engaged? Check. Prepared? Informed? Smart? Ambitious? Check, check, check and check.
“He is not a guy who instinctively says, 'Let’s bring everybody together and let’s do this, team.’ He resembles Donald Trump probably more than he’d like to in that regard,” said former Florida House Democratic Leader Dan Gelber, who served in the Legislature for six of Bush’s eight years in office.
“What he did with the Legislature is say, 'I’m going to take these big audacious ideas and push them through.’ He did not have an offense filled with trick plays,” Gelber continued. “His offense was, 'We’re going to have bigger linemen, we’re going to run the ball up the middle, and we’re going to just plow the other team over.’ ”
On the campaign trail, Bush describes his governing approach quite differently.
“We need men and women of good will forging consensus, starting to solve problems, kind of building back the muscles of consensus, compromise and solution-finding to fix these things,” he said during a recent Orlando-area campaign swing.
Asked on that trip what makes him think he can do any better than Obama in unclogging partisan gridlock, Bush sounded, at best, naive. Most of his conservative agenda for cutting taxes and regulations, Bush said, will be widely embraced “outside of the immediate circle of President Obama’s team.”
“Making a commitment to reach out, to be able to get people who don’t share every view you have, to build consensus, is something that I had experience doing,” Bush said.
Many of the signature elements of Bush’s record — high-stakes testing in public schools, overhauling Florida’s higher education system to put more control under the governor, privatizing government services, abolishing affirmative action, restricting lawsuits, trying to overrule court rulings to keep Terri Schiavo alive — had little or nothing to do with building consensus. They were examples of Bush doing what he thought was right regardless of public opinion or political backlash.
Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, called Bush a “highly successful” governor who was more likely to get his way through strong-arming than persuading Republicans and Democrats to find common ground.
In 2005, Paulson interviewed Tom Slade, the legendary, late Florida GOP chairman, about the history of the Republican Party in Florida. Slade died in 2014, but Paulson provided the Tampa Bay Times with notes from that interview. Slade’s descriptions of Bush 10 years ago:
“Uncompromisingly steadfast, without tolerance for any advice.”
“Doesn’t seek advice well.”
“Lacks maturity to be president of the United States.”
“Arrogant as hell, but so is George.”
Bush notes that even his most controversial initiatives generally received at least some Democratic votes in the Legislature. His campaign pushes back at the suggestion that his record does not reflect a leader who made collaboration a top priority.
“Throughout his administration, Gov. Bush worked to build consensus on the most pressing issues facing Florida, from transforming education to restoring America’s Everglades to responding to a historic eight hurricanes in 16 months,” said campaign spokeswoman Kristy Campbell. “At the same time, he stood up to the special interests like the teachers’ union and trial lawyers that for too long ran Tallahassee.”
Even critics acknowledge Bush was generally respectful, civil and willing to engage.
“He’s so studious that he really is willing to talk to anybody,” said former state Rep. J.C. Planas, a Republican supporter in Miami who occasionally crossed Bush on legislative issues. “He was never condescending, he always took a meeting, and when he wanted something his way, he always managed to read one more book than you because he always had his facts.”
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler, a Democratic House member during most of Bush’s tenure, echoed that sentiment, saying that as often as they disagreed, he never had anything but pleasant interactions with Bush.
“Where he could find common ground, he attempted to find common ground. He made a good faith effort but truthfully he didn’t need us, so maybe it was more trying to tone down what might be the opposition or tone down what might be some of the objections,” said Seiler. “I never left the room thinking he didn’t respect me.”
But Seiler was never in a position to block a priority of the governor’s, as were a few Republicans who dared stray from the Bush agenda.
When state Sen. Alex Villalobos, the Florida Senate majority leader, voted against two top Bush priorities in 2006 — expanding school vouchers and watering down a popular class-size mandate — Bush helped lead a multimillion-dollar campaign to oust the Miami Republican. It failed.
“I walked for him, I supported him, I raised money for him, I voted with him probably 99 percent of the time,” recounted Villalobos, who was in line to become Florida’s first Cuban-American Senate president until he crossed Bush.
“Jeb Bush definitely has the authority, the temperament, the skills to govern. His problem is that his idea of governing is you have to agree with him 100 percent of the time,” Villalobos said, chuckling at Bush’s claim to be a consensus-seeker.
“As long as everybody agrees with him, he’ll forge consensus,” he said.
Times researchers Carolyn Edds and John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Adam C. Smith at email@example.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.