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 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.
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.
“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.”
Bush insists that responsibility for dysfunction in Washington is shared, but not equally. “I'm disgusted by the system. But Democrats are more to blame, because they control the Senate and the presidency. They have not led.” At least Paul Ryan's budget, he argues, “put a down payment on the problem. But congressional Democrats are using it as a tool to plug Republicans and don't even offer a budget.” The president, meanwhile, received the report of his deficit reduction commission, but “hasn't uttered the words ‘Simpson' and ‘Bowles' in the same sentence again.”