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Why Jeb Bush needs to go to Europe (+video)

Jeb Bush is traveling to Germany, Estonia, and Poland to boost his image as a statesman – and to get out of the shadow of his father and brother. 

Jeb Bush is hardly new to global travel.

As a high school student, Mr. Bush studied in Mexico. Early in his career, he lived in Venezuela. As governor of Florida and after, he has taken dozens of international trips.

This week, on the eve of his expected June 15 announcement for president, Bush is on the road again – first Germany, then Poland and Estonia.

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Why does Bush feel the need to do this? And why now?

First, it’s one thing to have traveled abroad as a governor – promoting trade with your state – and then as a private citizen. But it’s quite another to be auditioning to become leader of the free world and impress upon American voters that you are comfortable dealing with world leaders.

“One motivation is to reinforce the essential message from the Jeb Bush team that he’s the grown-up in the race,” says Gil Troy, a presidential historian at McGill University in Montreal. “There’s something about being a statesman on foreign policy that proves you have grown-up street cred.”

Mr. Troy also sees the trip as a smart way of getting media coverage that’s different from just fundraising and political positioning. Bush’s campaign rollout has been rocky, as he has grappled to escape the shadow of the previous Presidents Bush, his father and brother. On Monday, he reshuffled his political team.  

“The trip is a clever attempt to reframe and put him in a more presidential mode,” says Troy.

Foreign policy and national security are growing in importance as campaign issues, particularly for Republican voters, as President Obama struggles with the rise of the Islamic State and Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Bush is expected to lay out his differences with both Mr. Obama and the Democratic presidential front-runner, Hillary Clinton. Mrs. Clinton’s failed “reset” with Russia during her time as secretary of State is a liability in her candidacy.

Bush begins his trip Tuesday in Berlin, where he will address an economic conference of the ruling Christian Democratic Party, speaking right before Chancellor Angela Merkel. In Estonia and Poland, both NATO members alongside Germany, Bush will meet with government and business leaders. The goal of the meetings is to “better understand the concerns and views of our European allies on a range of topics,” including Russia, terrorism, trade, and economic growth, Bush spokeswoman Allie Brandenburger told NBC News. 

But Iraq will also loom large during the trip. Germany remains firmly opposed to the Iraq War launched in 2003 by Bush’s brother, former President George W. Bush. Perhaps the worst week in Jeb Bush’s unannounced campaign came in May, when he struggled for days on the question of whether he would have launched the war, knowing that Iraq did not in fact have weapons of mass destruction.

In contrast, one of Bush’s top rivals for the Republican nomination – fellow Floridian and former protégé Sen. Marco Rubio – has risen in the polls as he has made foreign policy a key part of his campaign, including his service on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Bush delivered a major address on foreign policy in February, but was light on specifics. The most memorable line was “I’m my own man,” a reference to the other Presidents Bush. While in Europe, he is expected to elaborate more on what a Jeb Bush foreign policy doctrine might look like.

“I think what’s important here is not the contrast with the others, but in defining his own clear doctrine that reflects a clear strategy for the US,” says Republican pollster David Winston.

In modern politics, trips abroad by presidential candidates are virtually a requirement, though their nature has changed. Time was when contenders would quietly go overseas to “look, learn, and listen,” says Troy, the McGill professor. Some, like President Dwight Eisenhower and 1996 GOP nominee Bob Dole, got their foreign experience in World War II.

Then Obama raised the bar, with his big splashy address in Berlin in 2008, to 200,000 people. Now candidates heading to Europe can’t escape the media klieg lights, and most have stumbled. In 2012, GOP nominee Mitt Romney went to London and insulted his hosts when he cast doubt on the city’s readiness to host the Olympics.

This cycle, London has snared many a Republican hopeful. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, expected to announce his campaign soon, went to London unprepared to answer questions on his beliefs – including whether he believed in evolution. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, also expected to announce soon, stirred up headlines when he said that parents should have choice on whether to vaccinate their children. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who announces his campaign June 24, raised the ire of London Mayor Boris Johnson in January when he said that some parts of Britain and Europe were Muslim “no-go zones.”

Bush isn’t going to London on this trip, and maybe that’s wise. Or perhaps he should go to London and prove that he can answer questions of the feisty British press and come out unscathed.

The reality, though, is that doing well on a foreign trip usually doesn’t matter much to voters. Typically it’s the gaffes that get big coverage, and Bush doesn’t need any more negative headlines.

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