Where Did the Bipartisan, Moderate Jeb Bush Come From?

Florida Democrats have watched with puzzlement as the former governor becomes a spokesman for comity and reconciliation.

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Reuters

Former Governor Jeb Bush has been sounding downright squishy lately, decrying partisan backbiting and waxing poetic about compromise.

He sighed that his father, former President George H.W. Bush, and former President Ronald Reagan would have a "hard time'' fitting into today's Republican Party because they were willing to seek consensus with Democrats. He scoffed at a congressional hearing that he never signed anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist's pledge because you don't "outsource your principles and convictions to other people.'' He lamented "hyperpartisan'' politicians in Washington and called the GOP "shortsighted.''

To the Florida Democrats who clashed with him repeatedly when he served from 1998 to 2006, this is not the Jeb Bush they knew and frequently did not love.

One lawmaker dubbed the headstrong governor "King Jeb'' for his my-way-or-the-highway approach to governing while brandishing strong Republican majorities in both legislative chambers. He tied public-school funding to standardized tests, launched a private-school voucher program. banned affirmative action in state contracts and university admissions, and championed prolonging the life of a severely brain-damaged woman -- all the while igniting partisan firestorms.

Dan Gelber, who served as the Democratic leader in the Florida House under Bush and disagreed with him fiercely on all of the aforementioned issues, has been, well, "surprised'' by Bush's conciliatory tone of late.

"When Jeb Bush is saying it's gotten hyperpartisan, that's really something. It shows you how far the needle has moved,'' Gelber quipped. "He was quite a partisan guy .... Payback was also part of his agenda, no question. He took care of his friends and went after his enemies.''

But Gelber said Bush's hardline positions were always firmly grounded in policy, not in political scorekeeping. That makes him different -- and smarter -- than some of the conservative leaders in Washington and in state capitals across the country, Gelber said, including Governors Rick Scott in Florida and Scott Walker in Wisconsin.

"We were prepared to do battle with Jeb every day but it was over ideas,'' Gelber said, almost wistfully. "The difference with these guys today is that it's about electoral politics, so anything the other guy says is bad.''

Gelber added, "Jeb's tone has surprised me lately, but it doesn't surprise me that he would be frustrated by this reflexive ideology that has become the dominant feature of his party.''

Perhaps it takes leaving office to reveal a politician's softer side. Bush has repeatedly resisted pleas to run for president and insisted he won't be vice president, either. But he clearly relishes his role as a GOP elder and wants to be a part of the national conversation, and for that his admirers are grateful.

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Beth Reinhard is a political correspondent for National Journal.

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