Jeb Bush’s Record Offers Cover From the Right

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from The Wall Street Journal,

Some Republicans now call him a moderate unfit to serve as the party’s standard-bearer, but his positions in Florida could blunt attacks.

As Jeb Bush heads toward a presidential bid, he is taking fire from some on the right who say his views on education and immigration, and his famous last name, embody a Republican Party establishment that doesn’t truly represent conservatives.

Lost in the back and forth: As the two-term Republican governor of Florida, Mr. Bush was one of the country’s most vaunted conservative champions.

Some Republicans now call him a moderate unfit to serve as the party’s standard-bearer, largely for his support of the Common Core academic standards and protections for illegal immigrants. Those issues have emerged as litmus tests for grass-roots conservatives since Mr. Bush left office.

Mr. Bush’s ability to overcome such views during the Republican primary season may turn on his success in highlighting his gubernatorial record. From 1999 to 2007, Mr. Bush pushed a broad conservative agenda of what he called “big, hairy, audacious goals,” or “BHAGs.”

Mr. Bush was the first Republican governor to win re-election in Florida, and he ushered in an era of GOP dominance of the nation’s largest swing state.

While in office, Mr. Bush delivered $19 billion in tax cuts, vetoed $2 billion in lawmakers’ pet projects and shrank the government payroll. He privatized many state services and pioneered a Medicaid overhaul that moved recipients into private managed-care networks. When the courts threw out his first-in-the-nation, taxpayer-funded school vouchers, he fought to preserve a smaller, privately financed program.

“We were looking at government programs across the board, and nothing was off limits to see if it could be done better,” said Brian Yablonski, Mr. Bush’s policy director during his first term. “He was willing to take on conservative reforms that no one else would touch at that time.”

Yet some Republicans view Mr. Bush as out of step with the conservative base of his party, a potent force in the early nominating contests.

“The idea that Jeb Bush is not a conservative is a joke in Florida and to anybody who knew him then,” said former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour, whose governorship of Mississippi overlapped with Mr. Bush’s administration. “He just needs to campaign on what he’s for and what he’s done.”

Mr. Bush first ran for governor in 1994 as a “headbanging conservative” and lost to the Democratic incumbent. His brother George W. Bush—viewed as more moderate—was elected governor of Texas that year.

Mr. Bush softened his conservative rhetoric during the next campaign and won election in 1998. He then set out an ambitious and ideological agenda.

In a state with no income tax, Mr. Bush cut taxes every year he was in office. He established sales tax holidays and eliminated a tax on stocks and bonds unpopular with investors. Mr. Bush boosted the state’s reserves to $9.8 billion from $1.3 billion, his aides said. He also secured the state’s first triple-A bond rating.

Mr. Bush was praised by the libertarian Cato Institute as “one of the most aggressive tax-cutting governors in the nation.” The group, however, gave him a C grade during his final year in office, citing a 45% increase in state spending over his two terms.

Donna Arduin, Mr. Bush’s former state budget director, said spending ran only slightly ahead of population growth and inflation.

Mr. Bush took on the teachers union by spearheading laws that held educators responsible for student test scores, as well as by expanding charter schools and offering taxpayer-funded vouchers for private tuition.

Mr. Bush backed more than a dozen new protections for gun owners, including the so-called stand-your-ground law that faced renewed scrutiny after the fatal shooting in 2012 of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager. The law—backed by the National Rifle Association and the first of its kind in the U.S.— allows gun owners to use deadly force rather than retreat if they believe they are in danger.

“His Bible was always open in his office,” said Dennis Baxley, a Republican lawmaker and former leader of the Christian Coalition of Florida. “Jeb Bush is solidly behind preserving the sanctity of life, no matter how small or how disabled, and he made tough calls.”

With both chambers controlled by Republicans, Mr. Bush usually got his way, earning a nickname among Democrats: King Jeb.

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