JEB: A Classical Conservative

On March 27th and 28th, Buckley Fellows had the pleasure of attending a wide range of events with former Florida Governor and 2016 Presidential candidate Jeb Bush in New Haven. He spoke with Buckley Fellows over meals, visited classes, and gave a lecture, touching upon a wide range of political topics. The following is one fellow’s reflection on his overall experience. 

By: Declan Kunkel

John Ellis “Jeb” Bush is not a name that is often connected with Yale. Politicians and laymen alike often think of his brother and father, George W. Bush ‘68 and George H.W. Bush ‘48. But Jeb, a politician in his own right, was the one making waves during a recent campus visit.

Bush’s comment about going home to his children after his loss in the 2016 South Carolina Republican Primary went viral, sparking responses from conservative pundits and journalists, as well as Donald Trump Jr. But for Bush, it did not matter. He was, as he had been for much of his political career, above the fray. Bush is a self-proclaimed “old-time” Republican, more in the style of Ronald Reagan than Ted Cruz.

In the speech that started the media storm, Bush called for a coming together, a modern form of big-tent conservatism.

“Maybe not a 19th-century or a 20th-century version of conservatism but certainly a 21st-century version of that,” Bush said. And, as if foreseeing the coming outrage, he continued, “sadly the fracturing of the conservative movement could not come at a worse time.” Bush promoted a modern form of an older ideal, a technologically advanced conservatism rooted in the respect and family values that were apparent during Reagan’s time in office. While morals should hold firm, Bush reasoned, “the 21st century conservative agenda cannot be nostalgic about the past,” but rather should focus on practical politics: education reform, tax reform, and restoring power to the states.

Bush, who served as the 43rd Governor of Florida, was often credited with instituting education reforms, including the issuance of vouchers and promoting school choice. His A+ Plan heightened standards in education through the state, and required testing of all students and graded all schools. During his tenure as governor, readings scores increased 11 points, more than five times the national average according to the Maine Heritage Policy Center. “Children are the future,” Bush said at a post-lecture event at Mory’s Clubhouse in New Haven. “If we aren’t investing in them, we are doing it wrong.” For Bush, conservatism strives to create a future by learning from the lessons of the past. “If there was ever need for a Bill Buckley-like approach to transforming conservatism in this country, it is right now,” Bush noted, pointing to William F. Buckley, Jr.’s trademark brand of intellectual, no-nonsense debate. “When there is a breakdown of public discourse, everyone loses.”

Bush expressed his gratitude and admiration for the student fellows of the Buckley Program. “It’s time to turn the helm over to you,” he said at one Breakfast event. “My generation has done a pretty good job fowling it up. But I take solace in knowing that people like you are working to make the world a better place.” In between bites of bacon and early-morning coffee, Bush said that he felt hopeful.

“But it will be a fight,” Bush remarked. Bush is a seasoned fighter himself, who knows when to make compromises and when to fight to the end.  While serving as governor, Bush fought against assaults on gun rights and freedom of speech and supported bills that cut back the government’s size while retaining its core functions. Bush championed a successfully balanced budget amendment and helped transform the State of Florida into one of the most successful economies within the United States. At the same time, Bush reached across the aisle to restore the Everglades, increase land conservation, and increase diversity in the racial composition of state courts.

As Bush highlighted in his lecture, since his presidential run he has focused on education reform and furthering his connection with God. He continues to advocate for charitable causes, notably the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and champions education reform. “Education is the key,” he remarked at a post-lecture breakfast. “And you all are getting the best.” As Bush looked around the Mory’s clubhouse, he saw pictures of his father and brother taken while they were getting their own education. The walls feature inscriptions of his paternal Grandfather, Prescott Bush, and his maternal Grandfather, George Herbert Walker. They all have impressive legacies of public service and intellectual conservatism. Jeb hopes that we carry them on.

Declan Kunkel is a junior in Morse College.