Exclusive: The Education of Jeb Bush

GOP presidential hopeful has a question for post-industrial America: "Can we shed a skin and renew ourselves?"

DETROIT—Jeb Bush just finished a meh-worthy speech, reading off a TelePrompTer with the enthusiasm of an asparagus-eating toddler. Two levels below the ballroom, in a windowless office at the foot of a rickety spiral staircase, the former Florida governor now is animated—almost shouting. "This is a spectacular!"

He smiles, eyes wide and fists pumping. "This is a brilliant idea!" The subject of his sudden enthusiasm is a group of Detroit parents who've developed an online rating system of the city's public schools—think of it as yelp.com for education. "Young parents got together and they have created a system by which they crowd-source, effectively, a school. They evaluate how a school works from the perspective of moms and dads," Bush tells me. "It's sincere. It's real."

This is Bush at his wonky and provocative best. Removed from the stodgy theater of the Detroit Economic Club, the soon-to-be Republican presidential candidate recounts his visit Wednesday morning to a hip new manufacturing company, Shinola, and a business incubator called Detroit Creative Corridor Center.

At those stops, Bush saw the manifestation of his vision for post-industrial America—a time when 20th century institutions are completely disrupted and refitted; when the so-called shared economy gets folded into a tech-juiced new economy; and when government helps spur innovation, or gets out of the way. After his address, in the bowels of an aging Cobo Hall on the banks of the Detroit River, Bush tries to explain it to me.

He starts with a story about the Detroit man who walked 21 miles in his daily commute to work, because his car broke down and public transportation in Detroit stinks. James Robertson, 56, became a national celebrity after the Detroit Free Press reported on his plight—and perfect attendance record—and a college student launched a crowd-funding website. Robertson now can afford a new car—and more.

"Did you see how much he raised?" Bush gasped. More than $230,000 in a few days. "It's really a symbol of this whole idea: Can we shed a skin, basically, and renew ourselves?" Bush said.

Shedding a skin is Bush's euphemism for national transformation: purge public institutions of what doesn't work and ingest the fruits of radical connectivity to inspire and support innovators.

In the story of the Detroit commuter, the old skin includes a bankrupt transportation system and a hollowed-out city (Robertson's company has moved deeper and deeper into the suburbs).  The new skin includes crowd-funding, of course, but also telecommuting, a revived city core, and a city government capable of running a reliable mass-transit system, or smart enough to cede to private-sector disrupters—maybe an Uber on steroids. These are my hypotheticals.

I ask Bush how such thinking could translate into a modernized federal government. "This is the big challenge of our time," he says excitedly. "In the shared economy, how does government work for people? It doesn't. In fact, if you're Airbnb or Uber or anybody participating in the shared economy, there are people attacking you because you're a threat. So I think the challenge is how do we move to a 21st-century government to deal with 21st-century opportunities and challenges?"

Bush acknowledges that he doesn't have those answers—not yet. But he says the solutions certainly won't come from the White House. "This president, who is really the first post-, I mean, definitely when people think of Barack Obama, they think of him as a 21st-century man. Yeah, young and dynamic. His campaign embraced technologies like no one else had. But his policies are in most ways a reflection of the 20th century. It's almost like Hubert Humphrey has come back."

I suspect Bush is road-testing the seeds of an attack against Hillary Rodham Clinton, the most likely 2016 Democratic nominee. "Certainly, the health care law was a good example of that. The industrial laws, the use of the Department of Labor, the encumbering that is making it harder for people to have start-ups "“ all these things are now really becoming a challenge," Bush says

"The answer isn't no government," he says. "The answer is smarter, effective government."

If his brother, former President George W. Bush, was a compassionate conservative, Bush is trying to be a 21st-century conservative—a center-right leader who talks more about reforming government than shrinking it, even if the results are the same.

Bush tells me about Hernando de Soto Polar, the Peruvian economist who specializes in the so-called informal economy (removed from taxes and government oversight). The economist documented frustrations of entrepreneurs across the globe whose innovations are crushed by crony capitalism and government monopolies, including a Tunisian man who in 2013 set himself afire in protest. "We're not Tunisia by any stretch of the imagination," Bush says, but "we're getting more and more complicated."

"This should not be an ideological question," Bush continues, before slipping into the clunky language of Peruvian economists and high-tech disrupters. "Transparencies about how we create rules around society have to be a part of the solution for people to be successful."

I ask Bush why he's seems to be avoiding the tropes of modern political debate: small government versus big government and tax cuts versus spending increases. He grins, "Well, I think I used 'liberal' a couple of times."

Prodding, I ask whether Democrats and liberal policies are the cause of Detroit's demise. It's a softball question that most GOP politicians would take a whack at. Bush lets it pass. "I don't know that that matters anymore," he said.

What matters? "The inability to transform and to change and adapt to the world that we're in—and the embracing and the hanging on to the old world order that was never going to stay, because nothing ever does."

He's revved up. "So you look at these big industrial organizations—and, by the way, politics would be one of them, the Republican and Democratic parties—and the old order has been clearly disrupted. Don't you think?"

Yes, I reply, but politics not nearly as much as the entertainment and media industries.

Bush nods, and then makes two rather provocative points. First: "In politics, you have election laws that create sanctuaries. If we didn't, we probably would have a European kind of system. So government has a monopoly: the power to tax and to regulate, so they're not going quietly into the night, either."

And second: "13,174 government-run school systems is not the appropriate model of governance for this incredibly diverse group of kids who comprise the next generation of Americans," he said.

Before I could ask how he'd deal with all those school districts, Bush doubled back to my point about tropes. "One way that you're right: This is not as ideological as it is just recognizing the way world works," he chuckled. "But smaller would work better than bigger."

We end our conversation by discussing the Detroit Creative Corridor Center and the yelp-for-schools initiative, a program that reflects his vision: It's organic, bottom-up, effective, and the result of a partnership with a reform-minded city government. "The fact that the Detroit schools let them do it is a sign of a willingness to improve," he said. "I bet you before the crash (and bankruptcy), they would have said no way, no how."

I tell him he's right and wonder whether the federal government can ever be open to grassroots, tech-fueled accountability. Bush doesn't know, but aims to find out in this "exploratory" phase of his campaign.

"Part of this journey of consideration is also to learn," Bush says. "It's not only about what my 5-point plan to cure the common cold is. It's to campaign in a way where you're a little outside your comfort zone, where you're learning along the way."

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