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WASHINGTON--Jeb Bush's recent field trip to Washington was not pleasant, but it was clarifying--a civics lesson in democracy's darker side.
On June 1, Bush testified before the House Budget Committee on the topic of entitlement reform. First came an ambush by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz--also the chair of the Democratic National Committee--who delivered a partisan tirade on an obscure spending item that Bush had supported as Florida's governor. Then Bush ventured to criticize anti-tax pledges, which "outsource your principles and convictions"--comments that Grover Norquist immediately attacked as "ignorant" and "embarrassing."
It was Washington in miniature: a momentous topic treated with the dignity and seriousness of cage boxing. Bush recalls the hearing as a "circus" and "laughable." "It was not a discussion," he told me, "but long questions that were really statements." Bush, who has been reading Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson, "The Passage of Power," was struck by the historical contrast. "You might not always like where he came out, but Johnson used power to solve problems."
This failure of pragmatism is Bush's chief criticism of politics in the capital--a case he believes the press has distorted. "The general thinking among liberal media is that the Republican Party is too conservative. That's not my point. We have a time of great national need, but we're lacking the ability to find common ground." Bush, who was a decidedly conservative, tax-cutting governor, is not calling for ideological moderation in the tradition of Nelson Rockefeller. He is defending the possibility that conservatives and liberals might find productive compromise on the debt crisis. Cooperation to avoid disaster is not the same thing as spinelessness. Bush points to his father and Ronald Reagan as examples of "principled leaders, but who led, who moved on problems."
"Across the board, on both sides, there is little reward for public officials who find common ground." Bush finds this particularly disturbing because of the gravity of current challenges--what he describes as "structural problems that leave us on the path of decline."