In his stated concern for the poor, George W. Bush was almost certainly sincere. “If he’s trying to allege that I’m a hardhearted person and I don’t care about children, he’s absolutely wrong," Bush fumed after Al Gore criticized his healthcare policies in Texas. But Bush’s heart was irrelevant; his policies were typical GOP fare. As governor, he had passed the largest tax cut in Texas history. And on his watch, Texas had been one of only three states that failed to make it easier for poor children to receive Medicaid, with the result that while Medicaid enrollment increased nationwide between 1997 and 1999, it dropped in Texas by more than seven percent. When Bush left the governor’s office, Texas had the seventh-highest poverty rate in the country and the highest percentage of children without health insurance.
Bush didn’t create these realities by himself, of course: Texas had been a low-tax, low-service, high-poverty state long before he entered office. But as governor, he had presided over an economic boom, the fruits of which he largely funneled to upper-income taxpayers rather than to the poor. “If there was ever an opportunity to invest, our current booming economy provides that opportunity,” Patrick Bresette, the associate director of the non-partisan, Texas-based Center for Public Policy Priorities, told the Los Angeles Times in 2000. “The governor has not stepped up a lot to say, ‘We’ve got more revenue coming in than we’ve seen in a decade. How can we spend it to help the least among us move up?’”
When George W. became president, it was more of the same. Once again, the media lavished attention on the new Office of Faith-Based and Community Programs, which would supposedly use religion to transform the lives of the poor. But there was no there there. John DiIulio, the office’s first head, lamented the “virtual absence as yet of any policy accomplishments that might, to a fair-minded nonpartisan, count as the flesh on the bones of so-called compassionate conservatism.” In Washington, as in Austin, Bush’s real agenda was massive tax cuts geared to the rich. On his watch, America’s poverty rate rose even before the Great Recession. Then it went through the roof.
Now Jeb is trying something similar. If George W. in 1999 set out to prove that he’s not Newt Gingrich, Jeb is out to prove he’s not Mitt Romney, whose perceived callousness towards the 47 percent helped doom his presidential chances. So Jeb announced his candidacy at Miami-Dade College, two-thirds of whose students are Latino. He filled his announcement video with African American and Latino strivers, who credit him for their success. And he named his Super PAC, “The Right to Rise.”
To hear Jeb tell it, what made all this rising possible in Florida was his educational policies, which allowed students in bad public schools to attend charter or private schools. But there’s not much evidence for this. Yes, Florida fourth graders, whose reading scores had been below the national average when Jeb took office, had surpassed the national average by the time he left. But former University of South Florida education professor Sherman Dorn attributes that less to school choice than to Jeb’s laudable decision to hire more primary school reading specialists—a decision he doesn’t talk about much on the stump, perhaps because it sounds like big government. When I asked University of North Florida professor Matthew Corrigan, the author of Conservative Hurricane: How Jeb Bush Remade Florida, to explain the rise in scores, he pointed to the state’s refusal to let poor-reading third graders ascend to fourth grade, which led many to enroll in summer school and boost their scores. But Dorn and Corrigan also note that compared to the national average, Florida eighth graders showed far less improvement, and that even fourth graders showed significantly less improvement on math than on reading. As Dorn puts it, “Bush is correct that Florida’s children benefited from his time in office if children graduated high school at the end of fourth grade, and only evidence of general reading skills mattered. For most other independent test-score measures, the picture is less impressive.”