Opinion

What is Jebonomics?

Yet another Bush is poised to run for president. And Jeb's fate could hinge on his economic agenda.

Jeb Bush has "decided to actively explore the possibility" of becoming the third member of his family to seek the presidency. So now comes the donor and staffer outreach, the perfunctory listening tour with voters, and, apparently, an eventual e-book outlining his vision for America.

But what will the former Florida governor's big ideas be? Or to put it into Jeb-speak, what will his BHAGs, his "big, hairy, audacious goals," be?

This is a politician, after all, with a reputation as a policy wonk. Can he live up to it and blow our collective mind with his economic agenda? Or will he too cautiously offer just more of the same GOP boilerplate?

It's tricky to predict, since Bush has been out of the game for so long. He hasn't held elected office since January 2007. If Bush should make it all the way to the White House, it would be 14 years between when he last ran for elected office and occupied the Oval Office. That would be the longest gap since James Buchanan in 1857, The Daily Beast's Ben Jacob points out.

The world has changed a lot since Bush was the Sunshine State's chief executive. Although America's housing bubble was already starting to deflate — particularly in Florida — when he left office, the Great Recession didn't officially start until nearly a year later. And the continuing economic fallout from that financial meltdown has put issues such as income inequality, wage stagnation, and social immobility onto the national political agenda in a way they weren't before.

Indeed, one risk for Bush is that his BHAGs will have a distinct and dated "Welcome to the Nineties" feel about them.Take one of the issues Bush has been most vocal about during his political interregnum: the Common Core education standard. It deeply divides Republicans. The tea party wing intensely hates Common Core. The corporate wing sees it as smart reform.

More importantly, though, the idea is a bit moldy and off point. Common Core — which started in the 1990s — is really an incremental reform that supports the basic structure of our K-12 school system. Bolder, modern reform would encourage new models for injecting technology-driven choice and competition, such as a Louisiana program where students use public funding to pay for outside providers of individual courses.

Republicans certainly don't need a replay of Romney 2012, where the candidate focused too much on big macro issues like tax and entitlement reform — issues that failed to connect with voters struggling with everyday, middle-class problems. But that's what a Bush candidacy could well look like. In an October fundraising letter for an education group he founded, Bush put forward a broad-strokes economic agenda that once again argued America needs to "radically simplify our tax and regulation structures to be fairer and more practical" and "reform our entitlement programs, which are now ballooning government beyond taxpayers' means to pay for it." That's just GOP boilerplate that many voters will tune out.

But don't fret quite yet, conservative reformers. There are still signs that Jebonomics has the potential to be smart and important. For instance, Bush also spent a lot of time in that letter discussing K-12 and higher education challenges and reform, both of which are crucial to improving middle-class fortunes. Anyone remember the Romney education plan, or him even talking much about student debt? The candidate actually had a plan, but it was a mystery to voters. Bush sounds like he could focus on these middle-class issues far more than Romney did.

Likewise, in a recent television interview, Bush noted an economic phenomenon that has mostly escaped Washington policymakers: the long-term decline in startups to challenge to Big Business. Some economists think weaker entrepreneurship has resulted in less middle-class jobs creation. If this issue becomes a cornerstone of Jebonomics, we could have a real wonky reformer on our hands. And that's a good thing.

So will Bush be a generic Republican stuck in the last decade, or a modern conservative reformer? We don't really know yet. I suppose we'll have to download that e-book to find out for sure.

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