There's nothing in American public life quite like the scrutiny of a presidential campaign. Credible candidates can expect to see their entire lives dissected in granular ways that are often unflattering, and it's up to voters to decide whether, and to what extent, a presidential hopeful's life experiences matter.
With this in mind, the Boston Globe
ran a lengthy feature
over the weekend on former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a leading Republican presidential candidate, who apparently had a troubled youth.
He bore little resemblance to his father, a star on many fronts at Andover, and might have been an even worse student than brother George. Classmates said he smoked a notable amount of pot -- as many did -- and sometimes bullied smaller students. [...] Meanwhile, his grades were so poor that he was in danger of being expelled, which would have been a huge embarrassment to his father, a member of Congress and of the school's board of trustees.
At this point, I suspect many Republicans are thinking, "He was a dumb teenager and none of this tells us anything important about his character now." It's a perfectly legitimate defense -- as brutal as a presidential vetting process is, there has to be a limit on how closely we look at candidates' backgrounds, especially before they were even adults.
I imagine we can all look back at our high-school years and think of things we should have handled differently. Presidential politics can tolerate some statutes of limitations on teen-aged stupidity.
But in this particular case, the Globe's look at Jeb Bush's past may have some relevance
to contemporary policy disputes.
Sen. Rand Paul says it's hypocritical for Jeb Bush to oppose legalizing marijuana given that Bush smoked a fair amount at prep school. "You would think he'd have a little more understanding then," Paul told The Hill while en route to a political event in Texas. "He was even opposed to medical marijuana," Paul said of Bush. "This is a guy who now admits he smoked marijuana but he wants to put people in jail who do."
The Kentucky Republican, a likely Bush rival for the 2016 nomination, went on to say, "I think that's the real hypocrisy, is that people on our side, which include a lot of people who made mistakes growing up, admit their mistakes but now still want to put people in jail for that.... Had he been caught at Andover, he'd have never been governor, he'd probably never have a chance to run for the presidency."
I don't say this often, but Rand Paul raises a good point.
If Jeb Bush said his drug use in high school was a long time ago, it was a teen-aged mistake, and he'd like voters to overlook his youthful indiscretions, the issue would be a non-factor in the campaign.
But that's not quite the situation we're confronted with here. Rather, Bush seems to support one forgiving standard for himself and a punitive standard
for everyone else.
As a politician, Bush has not embraced marijuana. He spent much of his time as Florida governor championing jail instead of treatment for nonviolent drug offenders, and pushed for mandatory prison sentences for drug offenders -- with the exception of his daughter, Noelle, who has struggled with crack cocaine use. More recently, while acknowledging that states should "have a right" to decide on the legalization of marijuana, Bush publicly opposed an amendment to legalize medical marijuana in Florida.
Overlooking a presidential candidate's high-school-era mistakes is easy. Overlooking a presidential candidate who punishes those for making the same mistakes he made is far more difficult.