The Limits of Jeb Bush's Compassionate Conservatism

The former Florida governor, like his brother before him, is using concern for the poor to distract attention from policies that favor the elite.

Larry Downing / Reuters
If Jeb Bush wants to prove that he’s different from his brother, he has an odd way of showing it. In the video that accompanied Monday’s announcement that he’s running for president, Jeb declared that, “The barriers right now on people rising up is the great challenge of our time” and that “my core beliefs start with the premise that the most vulnerable in our society should be in the front of the line and not the back.” Sound familiar? It should. It mimics George W. Bush’s presidential announcement, right down to the mangled prepositions. “I’ll tell you what’s on my heart,” George W. declared on June 12, 1999. “The purpose of prosperity is to leave no one out, to leave no one behind. I’m running because my party must match a conservative mind with a compassionate heart.” Sixteen years later, almost to the day, compassionate conservatism is back.
Let’s hope that this time, the press isn’t fooled.
In 1999, compassionate conservatism was George W.’s way of saying “I’m not Newt Gingrich.” Three years earlier, Bill Clinton had won reelection by lashing Republican nominee Bob Dole to the Gingrich Congress, which Clinton accused of seeking deep cuts to spending on Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment. Rhetorically, Bush offered a dramatic contrast, and a Republican talking about poverty intrigued the press. There were endless stories about Bush’s efforts in Texas at education reform and the rehabilitation of prisoners. Commentators pored over the writings of Bush advisors like Marvin Olasky, Myron Magnet, and Stephen Goldsmith, who promised to fight poverty by outsourcing government services to businesses (which were supposedly more efficient) and religious groups (who supposedly cared more).
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.”
This isn’t to question Jeb’s sincerity. Like his brother, Jeb seems genuinely interested in the education of poor kids, a subject he talks about with more knowledge and more conviction than Romney or many of his current Republican rivals. But like his brother, his overall economic policies benefitted not Florida’s poor, but Florida’s rich. During Jeb’s time as governor, a real-estate boom filled the state’s coffers. (Conveniently for Jeb, it only crashed the year he left office.) And like his brother, Jeb responded to the economic windfall with large tax cuts for the rich. “A review of tax cuts enacted during Bush's terms,” noted the Gainesville Sun, “show the bulk of the cuts have aided businesses or investors.”
On his PAC website, Jeb declares that, “While the last eight years have been pretty good ones for top earners, they’ve been a lost decade for the rest of America.” But partly because of Jeb’s own policies, that observation is even more true of his time as governor. Between the late 1990s and the mid-2000s, Florida saw the sixth-highest growth in income inequality of any state.
Like Texas, Florida is also a state with vast numbers of uninsured: Almost a quarter of its non-senior citizen residents lack health coverage, the second-highest rate in the nation. Yet, like his brother, Jeb opposed efforts to expand coverage. When Florida Governor Rick Scott, a Republican, urged the state legislature in 2013 to accept the Obamacare money that would allow the state to expand Medicaid, Jeb opposed the move, falsely claiming that after “three or four years” Washington would pick up only 55 percent of the tab. (The feds will actually pick up 90 percent until at least 2020).
In 2000, the press paid too much attention to George W.’s rhetoric and persona and not enough to his policies. Now journalists have the chance to learn from that mistake. When it comes to the poor, Jeb’s offering the same basic formula as Romney and most of his rivals: tax cuts, deregulation, and school vouchers. Rhetorically, Jeb may be less condescending. When he talks about “the barriers right now on people rising up,” he may even show real passion. But it’s only the style that’s new. The substance is all too familiar.