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A weekend of brotherly love for the Bushes

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 3, 2001


As the president and Florida's governor enjoy the weekend at Camp David before heading to Everglades National Park and on to Tampa Monday, they should share more than Sunday dinner.

The Bush brothers might swap ideas on how to stop alienating moderates in their own party.

President Bush received a wake-up call when Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont decided there wasn't any room left in the Republican Party for moderates and became an independent. The defection, rumored for weeks, caught the Bush administration off guard. It also imperiled much of the president's legislative agenda by shifting control of the Senate from Republicans to the Democrats.

Until Jeffords decided he'd had enough, the GOP was riding high in Washington. For the first time since the early 1950s, the party controlled the White House, the House and the Senate. It turned out the domination would last all of four months.

In Tallahassee, the governor enjoys even greater Republican power in the Legislature. There are no rumors of defections. With the Democrats holding so few legislative seats, anyone who left the GOP now would be leaving their political career behind.

Yet Jeb Bush could learn a valuable lesson from his older brother's difficulties in Washington.

"I think the lesson is moderation," former Republican legislator Curt Kiser said of Jeffords' decision to leave the GOP. "Their lesson was you pushed so hard, you got so high-handed, you lost control. I don't think it is quite the same here -- but you better pay attention."

Like most brothers, the Bushes are not keen on comparisons. But the circumstances surrounding Jeffords' switch are familiar to anyone who has spent time in Tallahassee.

In their campaigns, the Bush brothers filled their speeches with the rhetoric of moderates. After they took office, the conservative nature of their policies became more apparent.

The Bushes doggedly pushed big tax cuts this spring that some moderate members of their own party could not support. Both also tripped up on the environment, which is why the brothers will be smiling for photographers Monday in the Everglades.

The Bush administration in Washington has signaled its willingness to allow oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and off Florida's Gulf Coast. The Bush administration in Tallahassee backed a controversial plan to inject untreated water into the state's aquifer. The governor backed off only after the public outcry became too loud for Republican legislators.

During last year's campaign, tons of newsprint were used to describe the Bush brothers' differences. George W. was the oldest son who took years to find his way, the guy who would rather talk baseball than policy. Jeb was the serious younger brother, the one who left Texas to cut his own path in Florida and can debate public policy all night while answering his e-mail.

But there are shared traits that can get both brothers into trouble.

They can be arrogant at times. They demand 100 percent loyalty. Their inner circles are tight, and anyone outside those circles is suspect. Without legislative experience, they are relative strangers to the give-and-take of lawmaking and slow to compromise.

Those are traits that apparently contributed to Jeffords' frustration, and they are not well balanced by legislative checks in Washington or Tallahassee. The president and governor are blessed -- or cursed -- by House chambers that are more conservative than most voters. The House Republicans in both capitals are eager to jump on the Bush bandwagons and drive them even farther to the right.

Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas said he believes conservative and moderate Republicans work well together in the state.

"There are always a couple of elbows under the basket, but we handle it well," he said, adding that any tension is nothing compared to the complaints now being aired in Washington. "I don't see it."

Perhaps he wasn't watching the state Senate.

A group of influential moderate Republicans, including Senate President John McKay of Bradenton, Rules Chairman Tom Lee of Brandon and Jack Latvala of Palm Harbor, don't always see the world the way the governor sees it. That group helped reduce Bush's tax cuts and slow his efforts to privatize government services.

"They've got some internal problems to deal with," Florida Democratic Chairman Bob Poe said of the state's Republicans.

That's the irony in both capitals.

The first major setback for the president and the most interesting grumbling about the governor comes from fellow Republicans, not Democrats.

For the president, there is plenty of time to learn from the Jeffords incident and moderate attitudes and policies. Watch whether he starts reaching out to moderate Republicans and Democrats like he did as governor of Texas, or whether he listens to Trent Lott and other conservatives who are blistering Jeffords.

The Florida governor has less time to learn from the Washington furor. He is expected to announce his re-election plans later this month.

Sounds like the perfect weekend for a brotherly chat.

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