Reality check: Jeb Bush’s conservative record

Story highlights

Jeb Bush had a strong conservative record as Florida governor

But the possible 2016 candidate is seen as too moderate by grass roots

RNC committee member: Activists are "looking at Common Core, the Bush name and immigration"

Washington CNN  — 

He cut billions in taxes, intervened in controversial abortion cases, railed against affirmative action and gun control and dreamed of a state capital in which government buildings would forever be drained of unneeded workers.

Yet the biggest barrier between former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and the White House may be a perception that – despite his record – he’s not conservative enough for today’s Republicans.

“Many things he’s said have rubbed conservatives raw,” said Morton Blackwell, a Republican National Committee member from Virginia, who said a lot of base voters were particularly suspicious of Bush’s departures from party orthodoxy on education and immigration.

Bush’s presidential hopes are complicated by multiple factors. As the son and brother of former presidents, he’s undeniably part of an establishment that is loathed in many corners of the GOP base. The party has also shifted rightward in the years since he left office under the influence of the tea party, and activists have embraced populist conservatives like Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz.

READ: Bush surges to 2016 frontrunner

But Bush, 61, is also facing an uphill battle because his time running Florida seems fuzzy to many people – particularly GOP primary voters. That’s in part because he has yet to highlight the most conservative aspects of his 1999 to 2007 governorship. And the issues that he’s most vocal about – the Common Core education standards and immigration reform – are the positions that most infuriate conservatives.

Glenn McCall, a South Carolina RNC member, says activists in his state aren’t interested in Bush’s record.

“The successes he had in Florida – they’re not even thinking about that. They’re looking at Common Core, the Bush name and immigration.”

Sharper scrutiny

Whether he talks about it or not, Bush’s legacy in Florida will come under sharper scrutiny as he makes moves to launch a presidential campaign. That’s especially true if Mitt Romney mounts a third White House bid and campaigns to Bush’s right.

Bush will mark a rite of passage for Republican presidential candidates next Wednesday by addressing the Detroit Economic Club. Ahead of that speech, he’s beginning to make the kind of arguments for small government that closely echo his rhetoric from his days in Florida.

“Our government gets in the way each and every day,” he said in a speech in San Francisco last week. “It is time to challenge every aspect of how government works, how it taxes, how it regulates, how it spends.”

Those who know Bush believe his record in Florida could be a tool to blunt attacks from conservatives and lay to rest – once and for all – the idea that he isn’t one of them.

“He was in no way a moderate,” said Florida political strategist Mike Hanna, who advised Bush during his gubernatorial runs. “After Governor Bush gets out there and starts to introduce himself to the voters of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and other states, I think they will realize … he is a card-carrying, unabashed, capitalist conservative.”

John Dowless, who headed the Christian Coalition in the Sunshine State while Bush was governor, said “there is no question that Jeb Bush was and is a conservative. There never was a question in Florida.”

READ: Jeb’s invisible man strategy

But talking about that conservatism hasn’t always come easy to Bush.

Brash and clumsy

During his first gubernatorial campaign in 1994, his attempts to demonstrate his politics were brash and sometimes clumsy.

Not only did he advocate for abolishing the Department of Education, for voter approval of all new taxes, and “privatization in every area where privatization is possible,” he also suggested welfare reforms that would have cut recipients’ access to benefits after two years.

His 1994 pronouncements on gay rights haunt his image to this day.

During that failed first campaign, he argued in the Miami Herald that there was no need for “special categories” to protect members of the gay and lesbian community. Should “sodomy be elevated to the same constitutional status as race and religion?” he asked in one controversial line. “My answer is no.”

Bush’s narrow loss that year to popular Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles prompted deep self-reflection before his next try in 1998. He later admitted he had run with “unvarnished conservative views” and needed to become a better storyteller. By the time he left office after two terms he was more comfortable laying out his conservative vision – and he had approval ratings of over 60%.

Bush’s politics also evolved after his conversion to Catholicism, his wife’s religion, in the mid-1990s, which strengthened his resolve on issues like abortion.

In 2009, after leaving office, he explained that he admired “the fact that the Catholic Church believes in and acts on absolute truth as its foundational principles and doesn’t move with modern times as my former religion did.”

He also spoke disapprovingly of politicians who put their religion “in a safety deposit box” while in office. In San Francisco, he said his faith gave him “serenity” and was hugely important during tough times as governor.

Executive power

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Bush’s record in Florida is his use of muscular executive power on social issues that are important to conservatives.

Backed by a pliant Republican legislature, he vigorously sought restrictions on abortion while governor – from a ban on late-term procedures to a constitutional amendment that would circumvent the courts, which had struck down a law requiring girls notify their parents before getting an abortion.

Bush’s abortion activism shocked some state officials who believed he was reaching beyond the powers of his office.

In 2003, Bush unsuccessfully tried to get the courts to appoint a guardian for the fetus of a 22-year-old disabled woman with cerebral palsy and autism, who became pregnant after being raped by an operator of a state-supervised group home.

In 2005, he intervened in the case of 13-year-old girl, known as L.G., who was a ward of the state and was 13½ weeks pregnant when she tried to get an abortion. Bush fought hard to prevent the procedure, but was overruled by a judge.

Shortly after those episodes Bush told Republicans at the 2005 Georgia GOP convention that “there is such a thing as right and wrong.”

“Republicans cannot continue to win unless we talk with compassion and passion about absolute truth,” he said.

That principle clearly guided Bush’s extraordinary intervention in the case of Terri Schiavo, a mentally impaired woman deemed in a “chronic vegetative state.” Schiavo’s parents, Bob and Mary Schindler – with aid from then-Governor Bush – repeatedly tried to prevent Schiavo’s husband from removing her feeding tube to end her life.

After five years of litigation in 2003, Bush tried to get a different court-appointed guardian for Schiavo and filed a friend of the court brief to block removal of the feeding tube. He lost that round, but then persuaded the legislature to pass a law giving him the power to prevent a feeding tube or hydration device from being removed from a patient who had not laid out their end-of-life directives.

In the midst of the debate, Bush proclaimed that he was “probably the most pro-life governor in modern times,” according to Associated Press reports.

After the feeding tube was reinserted, Michael Schiavo’s attorney railed against the “gross and illegal intrusion into the private liberty of citizens” and the Florida Supreme Court ruled that hastily drafted state law was unconstitutional. The Florida governor kept pushing the case through all possible avenues, including action by Congress and then-President George W. Bush. Ultimately, he lost.

In polls, many Florida voters said they felt Bush had gone too far, but his actions were based on “personal and religious tenets from which he could not retreat,” said Mac Stipanovich, a Republican political strategist who advised Bush during the 1994 campaign.

Those battles suggest that he is unlikely to back away from his positions on controversial issues like immigration and Common Core, even during a heated presidential campaign.

Bush “will change his mind about stuff, but it is grudgingly, fact-based and he really thinks about it,” Stipanovich said. “He seldom looks for the path of least resistance.”

While Bush’s Catholicism looms large in his social policy, his economic approach is molded by his lifetime immersion in top-level Republican politics.

Ronald Reagan

Jeb Bush closely observed President Ronald Reagan, a conservative icon who he later termed “spectacular,” when his father was vice president. In office in Florida, Bush took as his model Reagan’s mantra that government was not the solution to America’s problems, but the problem itself.

During his second inaugural address in 2003, he gazed out at government offices and said “there would be no greater tribute to our maturity as a society than if we make these buildings around us empty of workers, silent monuments to a time when government played a larger role than it deserved or could adequately fill.”

Over the course of eight years, Bush signed into law $19 billion in tax cuts. He sought to privatize key government providers, including foster care, state parks and even legal aid to death row prisoners. His business-friendly state’s bonds were top-rated.

He reshaped Florida by wiping out 13,000 government jobs and vetoing $2 billion in new spending, an economic approach influenced by the conservative gospels of Milton Friedman. He enforced conservative solutions on taxes, gun control, dismantling affirmative action in universities, taking on teachers unions over testing and performance.

But despite all this, Bush faces an important question as he embarks on a presidential run: Will he get a hearing among grassroots activists who view his support for immigration reform as akin to amnesty for illegal immigrants and his backing of Common Core as an unacceptable embrace of state power?

“Is there enough space in our media environment in the Republican primaries for people to listen to his entire record?” asked Matthew Corrigan, author of a new book on Bush’s tenure in Florida, “Conservative Hurricane.” Or “will his opponents be able to yell amnesty and federal government control of education and not pay attention to anything else?”

Blackwell said he believed that it would simply not be possible for Bush to convince the base he truly has the conscience of a conservative.

“We’ve been down this road repeatedly before with members of his family who ran like they were going to be movement conservatives,” he said. “But his father broke the no new taxes pledge and his brother expanded federal programs in various directions, which conservatives didn’t like.”

Tea party supporters, who could be important in some early voting states like Iowa and South Carolina, are also worried that the former Florida governor not only does not reflect their views – but is not listening to them. They warn a ticket topped by Bush could face lukewarm Republican turnout in a general election.

‘He hasn’t got a prayer’

Laurie Newsom, president of the Gainesville, Florida, Tea Party, noted that many in the grass roots were disappointed by the performance of Republicans who had professed their conservative fiscal bona fides – like President George W. Bush – and had unhappily accepted previous GOP nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney.

“We have held our noses and voted in ’08 and ‘12,” Newsom said. “Jeb Bush – he hasn’t got a prayer. Poor Jeb has clouds hanging over his head right now.”

But Bush is warning that the Republican Party simply will not win in 2016 if it does not offer a positive vision for the future, despite boiling conservative resentment at Washington.

“We are not going to win votes as Republicans unless you lay out a hopeful, optimistic message,” he said in San Francisco. “A positive agenda wins out against anger and reaction every day of the week.”