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."
"It is not about talking points prepared by 20-somethings, set forth in a gotcha debate. It is about 40 cents out of every dollar spent by the government funded by debt. It is not sustainable."
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."
Bush has naturally gotten more attention for his departures from Republican orthodoxy. Most are heresies of the obvious. Bush would accept a theoretical deficit reduction package including $1 in tax increases for every $10 in spending cuts. So would any responsible public official, no matter what they feel compelled to say in a primary debate. Republicans, Bush says, have often been "shortsighted" when it comes to the Latino vote. Ya think?
Bush has been weakest in his political analysis — contending in a recent interview that even Reagan would have a "hard time" in the modern Republican Party, struggling against "an orthodoxy that doesn't allow for disagreement." This orthodoxy is strong — certainly stronger than when Reagan ran in 1980 on a gubernatorial record that included increases in corporate, income and inheritance taxes. But not strong enough to propel Ron Paul or Michele Bachmann to the GOP nomination. The two most recent Republican presidential nominees are John McCain and Mitt Romney. Republicans in Congress are led by Speaker John Boehner — who attempted a budget deal including tax increases — and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. These are hardly the four horsemen of the tea party apocalypse.
But Jeb Bush is correct in the outline of his main argument. The debt crisis is an existential threat to the American way of life. Addressing this vast structural problem will require a grand bargain including entitlement reform and higher revenue. Those who rule out the possibility of compromise as a matter of ideology are undermining the public interest. And if the outcome of this debate is determined by figures such as Norquist and Wasserman Schultz, all hope is lost.
Michael Gerson's email address is email@example.com.