Jeb Bush served as governor of Florida during 1998-2007. The brother of President George W. Bush and son of President George H.W. Bush, John Ellis "Jeb" Bush is part of a conservative political dynasty that stretches back more than half a century to the first President Bush's father, Sen. Prescott Sheldon Bush, a Republican who represented Connecticut in the U.S. Senate from 1952 to 1963.
Although at times at loggerheads with far-right factions of the Republican Party, Bush has promoted a conservative domestic agenda as well as hawkish U.S. foreign policies, including threatening military action against Iran to curb its alleged nuclear ambitions. Bush has also been a favorite political figure among many neoconservatives since the mid-1990s, when he supported the launching of the Project for the New American Century.
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Bush is considered a potential top contender for the Republican Party's 2016 presidential nomination. In early 2014, shortly after the Washington Post reported that GOP super-donor Sheldon Adelson was looking for an "electable" 2016 nominee (Adelson had pumped over $100 million into a host of failed GOP campaigns and campaign Super PACs in 2012, including Newt Gingrich's presidential bid), reports emerged that other high-dollar GOP donors were pressing Bush to run. According to the Post, "One bundler estimated that the 'vast majority' of [Mitt] Romney's top 100 donors would back Bush in a competitive nomination fight."
In December 2014, Bush announced that he had "decided to actively explore" a bid for the White House. Opined FiveThirtyEight: "While Bush has not yet formed a presidential exploratory committee, he's 'running' for president by any practical definition of the term. If he proves to perform poorly in the 'invisible primary,' failing to gather support among donors and influential Republicans, he could withdraw later on, before the first votes are cast in Iowa."
Soon after expressing his interest in running, Bush stepped down from a number of posts he held in the corporate and non-profit world. "Separating himself from those interests now could also be a strategic attempt to prepare for the added scrutiny of a hotly contested campaign for the Republican nomination," noted the Washington Post.
Among the businesses with which he severed ties was Barclays Bank, which had reportedly paid Bush more than a million dollars a year for serving as an adviser. Bush's relationship with Barclays—which once settled criminal charges for violating the U.S. embargo against Cuba—gained attention after he voiced opposition to President Obama's December 2014 announcement that the United States would seek to normalize ties with Havana.
In March 2014, Bush and several other potential candidates were received by Adelson at a Republican Jewish Coalition gathering at a Las Vegas hangar owned by Adelson's Sands Corporation—an opening salvo in what papers described as the "Sheldon Primary" to win Adelson's support. According to attendees, Bush gave a speech largely focused on domestic issues but also criticized the Obama administration's foreign policy—a key issue for Adelson, who is fiercely "pro-Israel." In his foreign policy remarks, Bush warned about the dangers of "American passivity" and, according to Time, "cautioned the Republican party against 'neo-isolationism' … a line universally understood as a shot at [libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand] Paul. Bush also pushed back on Democratic attacks that whenever a Republican calls for a more activist foreign policy that they are 'warmongering.'"
The remarks—which the Washington Post described as "muscular if generic"—appeared to be well received by the attendees and seemed to demonstrate that Bush identified more with the party's interventionist wing than with its rising libertarian faction on foreign policy.
Bush has been mentioned as a potential presidential candidate for several years. Shortly after President Barack Obama was re-elected to a second term in 2012, commentators began mentioning Bush as a possible contender for 2016, in part because of his purported ability to attract Latino voters. However, the former governor's confusing statements on immigration reform threatened to undermine his appeal and drew flak from the Republican Party's conservative base. In a 2012 op-ed on immigration coauthored with Clint Bolick, Bush claimed that "Amnesty promotes illegal immigration," and in a book published shortly thereafter, the two argued that permanent residency for undocumented migrants—even if legally granted—"should not lead to citizenship." On other occasions, however, Bush argued that he would support a path to citizenship "in a heartbeat," adding, "If you can craft that in law where you can have a path to citizenship where there isn't an incentive to come illegally—I am for it!"
Bush's topsy-turvy stance towards undocumented immigrants was further demonstrated in January 2016, when he suggested that undocumented immigrants be deported. "A great nation needs to control its border," said Bush at a San Francisco event, "not just at the border, which is hugely important, but also the 40 percent of the people that have come here illegally with a legal visa and overstayed their bounds. We ought to be able to figure out where they are and politely ask them to leave."
Stoking speculation on Bush's national ambitions were his highly public appeals to conservative activists to moderate their tone on cultural and economic issues, which were widely regarded as having cost the party votes among younger voters, people of color, and the working class in 2012. "All too often we're associated with being 'anti' everything," Bush told the Conservative Political Action Conference in March 2013. "Way too many people believe Republicans are anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-worker, and the list goes on and on and on. Many voters are simply unwilling to choose our candidates even though they share our core beliefs, because those voters feel unloved, unwanted and unwelcome in our party. … Never again can the Republican Party simply write off entire segments of our society because we assume our principles have limited appeal. "
Some analysts have argued that Bush has attempted to overcompensate for his "centrism" on domestic issues by supporting hawkish policies abroad. "Quite a few movement conservatives are willing to forgive all kinds of heterodox views on many other issues so long as the 'moderate' candidate fully embraces hawkish interventionism," quipped Daniel Larison of the American Conservative.
Despite his overtures, many writers have argued that Bush's own national ambitions will suffer from his association with his brother George, whom Jeb has pointedly refused to criticize. Saying he didn't believe "there's any Bush baggage at all," Jeb Bush predicted in March 2013 that "history will be kind to George W. Bush." This led The Daily Beast's Peter Beinart to quip, "Unfortunately for Jeb, history is written by historians," who have generally given the Bush administration poor reviews. "That's why Jeb Bush will never seriously challenge for the presidency," Beinart concluded, "because to seriously challenge for the presidency, a Republican will have to pointedly distance himself from Jeb's older brother. No Republican will enjoy credibility as a deficit hawk unless he or she acknowledges that George W. Bush squandered the budget surplus he inherited. No Republican will be able to promise foreign-policy competence unless he or she acknowledges the Bush administration's disastrous mismanagement in Afghanistan and Iraq. … Jeb Bush would find that excruciatingly hard even if he wanted to."
Although he rarely comments on foreign policy, Bush has appeared particularly unwilling to push back against the neoconservatives who supported his brother's administration, at times echoing their complaints about the Obama administration's foreign policy. In February 2010, for example, Bush told Newsmax that he didn't think "the military option should ever be taken off the table" with respect to Iran, adding in November that the Obama administration's policies toward the country had "empower[ed] bad behavior in Tehran." Bush also mused that "sheer ineptitude and incompetency and corruption will bring down the [Hugo] Chavez regime" in Venezuela, "but we can't sit back passively and let this happen naturally." Instead, Bush advocated offering U.S. support to "elements of Venezuelan society that are fighting back against" the democratically elected Chavez, who eventually died of cancer in early 2013 after being resoundingly reelected.
Bush has also stood by his support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, telling CNN in March 2013: "A lot of things in history change over time. I think people will respect the resolve that my brother showed, both in defending the country and the war in Iraq."
At one point in the late 1990s, Bush seemed to have been considered a potentially more influential political ally than his brother by the neoconservatives who founded the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). Commenting on the signatories to PNAC's 1997 founding statement of principles, Jim Lobe and Michael Flynn wrote, "Ironically, virtually the only signatory who has not played a leading role since the letter was released has been Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who in 1997 apparently looked to [William] Kristol and [Robert] Kagan more presidential than his brother George."
After working on his father's first failed presidential bid in 1980, Jeb Bush moved to Florida and joined a real estate company, the Codina Group. His political career began in earnest in 1984, when he was appointed chairman of the Dade County Republican Party. However, his influence stretched beyond state borders. According to the Guardian, in 1985 Jeb Bush played a behind-the-scenes role in the Iran-Contra affair, acting "as a conduit on behalf of supporters of the Nicaraguan contras with his father, then the vice president, and helped arrange for International Medical Centers to provide free medical treatment for the contras." He also gained popularity with the Cuban exile community through his years in Florida. Bush's ties with the community included serving on the Dade County Republican Party with Camilo Padreda, a former intelligence officer with the Batista dictatorship that was overthrown by Fidel Castro and who was later indicted for embezzlement. Bush also managed the campaign of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), the first Cuban-American in Congress.
Jeb Bush ran for the Florida governorship in 1994, losing by a small margin to the Democratic incumbent. Four years later, in his second bid for governor, which he won, Bush ran on a platform that emphasized traditionally Democratic Party issues such as education and Medicaid funding. Some argued that to win the governorship, Bush was trying to imitate then-President Bill Clinton, to which he responded: "I didn't emulate Bill Clinton ... but I do admire his awesome listening skills which is something that I have had to learn. That's not something that God gives you. It's really important to listen to people."
Among Bush's more well-known initiatives during his eight years as governor were his efforts to reform the state education system by implementing a controversial voucher program allowing some students to transfer to private schools, his ending of affirmative action in university admissions and state contracting, and his policies aimed at shrinking state government, which led to politically costly public disputes. Reported the New York Times in June 2001, "Mr. Bush has variously alienated unions, trial lawyers and consumer groups with policies that eliminated job security for thousands of state workers, made it tougher to sue companies for product defects and gave the governor's office more control over judicial appointments and the governing of state universities."
Despite his sometimes divisive polices, as well as the controversial recount during the 2000 presidential vote, which saw many black voters turned away at the polls after being cut from voter rolls, Bush ended his second term with high approval ratings, leading some conservatives to encourage him to seek the presidency. During the 2007 Conservative Summit in Washington, Bush was introduced by Ed Gillespie of the Republican National Committee, who said, "For those who are worried if you can put forward a vigorous conservative policy agenda in a state like Florida and still get elected and still be popular: Our keynote speaker left office with approval ratings above 60 percent." Bush used the opportunity to burnish his rightist credentials, saying, "Don't take offense personally if I get mad at Congress. It's important for us to realize we lost [in the 2006 midterm election], and there are significant reasons that happened, but it isn't because conservatives were rejected. But it's because we rejected the conservative philosophy in this country. … If the promise of pork and more programs is the way Republicans think they'll regain the majority, then they've got a problem."
Although not well known for his views on foreign affairs, Jeb Bush has been a supporter of hawkish factions in the United States, including the neoconservative PNAC. In 1997, just before his successful run for governor, Bush was one of more than two dozen prominent political figures to sign PNAC's founding statement of principles, which promoted a "Reaganite" vision of "American global leadership." Pointing to what it called "the essential elements of the Reagan administration's success"—"a strong military" ready to meet "present and future challenges"—the statement argued, "A Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity may not be fashionable today. But it is necessary if the United States is to build on the success of this past century and ensure our security and greatness in the next." Among PNAC's 25 charter signatories were several people who would become senior members of President George W. Bush's administration, including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, I. Lewis Libby, Zalmay Khalilzad, Peter Rodman, Paula Dobriansky, and Elliott Abrams.
Jeb Bush has consistently aligned himself with Israel's hardline Likud Party. The day before Florida's 2002 gubernatorial primary, then-Israeli Prime Minister and former Likud Party president Ariel Sharon appeared with Jeb Bush at a rally in Miami. "Israeli consular officials in Miami said today that Mr. Sharon's appearance had nothing to do with the re-election campaign of President Bush's brother," the New York Times reported. "But Florida Democratic leaders denounced the appearance as the latest instance of what they described as White House intervention on behalf of Governor Bush's campaign." In 2004, Bush again appeared with Sharon during a ceremony celebrating Israel's 56th Independence Day, during which the governor expressed support for President Bush's endorsement of Sharon's so-called land for peace initiative in the West Bank and Gaza. He said, "This new United States policy, I think, will bring about the chance of lasting peace far better than the current status quo. And if there's any attempt to impose a different vision, the United States is committed to intervene and provide support to the state of Israel."
Jeb Bush and his wife Columba have both served on the advisory board of the Drug Free America Foundation (DFAF), an anti-drug advocacy organization founded by Melvin Sembler, a major Republican Party donor and a prominent backer, along with Sheldon Adelson, of the hardline pro-Iraq War group Freedom's Watch. DFAF is a successor to the controversial adolescent drug treatment program Straight Incorporated, which was founded by Sembler in the mid-1970s and closed down after a string of allegations and lawsuits over the improper treatment of children at its facilities.