Jeb Bush and Iraq: What price family loyalty?

Jeb Bush's top challenge as a likely presidential candidate is to distance himself from his brother's policies. But he's not doing that, and in fact goes out of his way to defend him. 

James Glover/Reuters
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush takes questions at a town hall meeting in Reno, Nevada, May 13, 2015.

[Update: This story was edited at 4 p.m. after Mr. Bush's Thursday afternoon remarks on Iraq.]

This week, Jeb Bush’s foremost problem as a likely presidential candidate went on full display: Can the former Florida governor get over his last name and his emotional personal tie to his brother, the ex-president?

On Thursday, after three days of botched replies to a simple question, Mr. Bush finally said what most everyone expected him to say in the first place.

“Knowing what we now know, what would you have done? I would have not engaged. I would not have gone into Iraq,” Bush said at a campaign stop in Tempe, Ariz., according to The Washington Post.

Bush said he had had trouble with the question, because he didn’t want to appear ungrateful for the sacrifices made by Americans during the war. But the episode leaves lingering questions about Bush’s willingness to distance himself from his brother, former President George W. Bush, in the younger Bush’s expected bid for president in 2016.

Republicans were baffled Monday when Mr. Bush told Megyn Kelly on Fox News that he would have authorized the 2003 Iraq invasion, even given what we know now about the faulty intelligence. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, and John Kasich – all Republicans running for president or considering it – say they wouldn’t have invaded. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton says her “yes” vote as a senator was a mistake.

The next day, on Sean Hannity’s radio show, Bush walked back his comment. “I interpreted the question wrong, I guess,” he said. But when asked again, he demurred: “I don’t know what that decision would have been. That’s a hypothetical.”

“That’s a hypothetical” is the all-purpose dodge any politician can deploy when he or she doesn’t want to answer a question. And it made Bush look unprepared.  

“Jeb should have been prepared to answer that question the second his brother stepped on Marine One to leave the White House in 2009,” says Ford O’Connell, author of Hail Mary: The 10-Step Playbook for Republican Recovery.” “You get four or five mulligans on the presidential campaign trail, and he just used one of them up.”

The Iraq War remains deeply unpopular with the American public; in June 2014, 75 percent of the US public said the Iraq War was not worth the costs, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll.

The good news for Bush is that most Americans aren’t yet paying close attention to the 2016 race. It’s been 13 years since he last ran for office – reelection as governor of Florida – and he’s still getting his political sea legs back. Though he’s not expected to announce for president until mid-June, he’s effectively already running. On Wednesday, he said outright that he was running, then quickly reversed himself. 

At the heart of his campaign lies a paradox: the great blessing and the great burden of the Bush name.  

His father’s presidency (1989-1993) is remembered fondly by the general public, though anti-tax conservatives still remember his breaking of the “no new taxes” pledge. Bush’s brother’s presidency  (2001-2009) gets lower marks. Still, Jeb Bush benefits tremendously from the political network his family opens up for him. He could easily out-raise the rest of the GOP field in the early going. He has also assembled an A-list team of advisers.

But his brother’s legacy poses a particular burden, not just Iraq but also the economic crisis at the end of his tenure. And Jeb appears unwilling to throw brother George under the bus. He even referred to his brother recently, at a private event, as an adviser on the Middle East, a comment he didn’t disown in his interview with Ms. Kelly.  

The real story, in fact, out of Bush’s interviews with Kelly and Mr. Hannity may be that he seemed to go out of his way to defend his brother on Iraq.    

“News flash for the world,” Bush told Kelly. “If they’re trying to find places where there’s space between me and my brother, this may not be one of those.”

To Hannity, Bush said this: “The simple fact is, mistakes were made, as they always are in life.”

George W. Bush seems acutely aware of the liability he poses to his brother. Last month, at an event in Chicago, he practically gave Jeb permission to disown his record.

“He doesn't need to defend me,” the second President Bush said, according to Politico.

He also acknowledged his mother’s famous comment from 2013 – “Haven’t we had enough Bushes?” – and said: “That’s why you won’t see me out there” on the campaign trail.

If nothing else, it’s already clear that Jeb Bush won’t sail to the Republican nomination as his father and brother did back in the day. The theory that he could clear the GOP field by vacuuming up establishment money has already proved false. He leads (barely) in national polls of Republican candidates, but hasn’t broken out of the pack. In any case, it’s too soon to put much stock in polls.

On Tuesday, Bush advisers acknowledged that he is skipping the Iowa Straw Poll on Aug. 8, a beauty contest that contains no upside for him, as it favors candidates who appeal to the social conservative base of the Iowa GOP. That’s a smart move, analysts say.

Bush’s real challenge is to present himself as a Republican of the future, not a man burdened by his family’s past. With fresh faces like his former protégé, Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, and Gov. Scott Walker (R) of Wisconsin gaining positive notice in the early going, the battle is joined. But so far, Bush is still stumbling over the past.

Some analysts suggest that Bush may be playing a completely different game – that he is just going to say what he thinks, stay true to his family, and let the chips fall where they may. Perhaps this is his way of running “joyfully,” as he described his possible campaign in early 2014. “Let Jeb be Jeb” is how Bush adviser Mike Murphy described the philosophy to The New York Times last December.

Perhaps this brand of political authenticity will catch hold among Republican voters – and along with it, some of the Bush views that don’t fit standard Republican orthodoxy at the moment. Among those are support for “legalization” of undocumented immigrants and the Common Core education reforms, as well as an unwillingness to sign anti-tax pledges.

If Bush somehow manages to bend the GOP in his direction, he could represent the party’s future. But that’s a big “if.” 

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