The ‘other Bush’ passes on Senate bid

Republicans are recovering from the doldrums. There’s a growing sense that opportunity lies ahead in 2010. We’re seeing signs of this trend in the large fields of candidates running for gubernatorial and U.S. Senate slots in several states. So it was surprising that Jeb Bush decided to forgo seeking the Florida Senate seat that would have been his for the asking.

While I worked closely with Jeb at the outset of his career, I have no personal insight on his thinking today. And I purposefully avoided contacting those currently nearest him to get their insight into his thinking. Jeb is entitled to some privacy when it comes to pondering his future. And perhaps neither he nor others know for certain why he is passing this opportunity by. It may be nothing more than a vague sense that “the time isn’t right” lies behind this decision.

My observation is that Jeb has always been the family contrarian who looks for a different path. He didn’t go the Ivy League route, choosing the University of Texas instead. He didn’t “marry his mother,” as many men do. Instead he married a beautiful resident of another country altogether. He became a Catholic, leaving his Protestant family faith. He didn’t come back to Texas, choosing instead to become a Floridian. No oil and gas for Jeb. He went into the commercial real estate business.

As governor, Jeb continued to be an explorer. He marched to the beat of his own drummer, much as his predecessor Lawton Chiles had done. The Jeb that I once knew, the one who disdained government “picking winners and losers” through the economic development process, was later transformed into the governor who signed off on state-sponsored efforts to spend tax dollars to bring specific corporations to Florida.

Then there were the contradictions in style. The Jeb who was a near-pacifist on some issues became a confrontational street brawler on others. He would interject himself into some legislative races and initiative campaigns while studiously avoiding others. The “know-it-all” Jeb would show up most times, but the consultative, listening Jeb would show up at others. Perhaps he was just good at picking his battles carefully, like a gifted field general.

Perhaps that’s why he isn’t running now. To paraphrase the old joke, “Why ruin your reputation by getting elected to Congress?”

Chiles and Sen. Bob Graham, also Florida’s governor before entering the Senate, once pondered these matters in a meeting. Someone asked Sen. Graham which one of the two had the better job. Graham pointed at Chiles. As even “Doonesbury’s” Uncle Duke discovered in his drug-deluded existence, being a governor in America is about as good as it gets. Jeb knows that being one of a hundred would never suit his style like being governor did.

There is also reason to believe Jeb’s conventional politician’s pleas that he wants time to spend with his family and to focus on business and civic interests. That’s almost surely true. Jeb’s commitment to family is one area in which he is pure Bush. From what I know of Jeb, he would never want his life to be defined in political terms. I particularly think that he would be offended by being defined as “the next Bush.” As flattering as it might be to be described as the “best Bush son,” the one who should have been elected president, it’s not Jeb’s desired destiny.

Jeb may have done the best thing for himself by waiting for future opportunities, but this will put the Senate seat in jeopardy for Republicans. While Mel Martinez would have been well-suited to win reelection because he can keep Hispanics in the Republican coalition, it’s far from certain that other Republicans will be so fortunate.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.