You know we’re off to the races when the first slip of the tongue by the presumed Republican presidential front-runner consumes the news for days and launches the primary race in earnest.
Even if the presumed front-runner hasn’t officially announced his candidacy yet.
Jeb Bush’s first, second, third and fourth answers to the inevitable question about the Iraq War constituted the starting bell. Democrats were gleeful; establishment Republicans concerned. Comedians rejoiced; other GOP hopefuls quickly flaunted their own superior hindsight.
The question, originally posed by Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, was: “Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?”
Bush gave exactly the wrong answer: “I would’ve,” he said, “and so would’ve Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody. And so would’ve almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.”
His mention of Clinton, who voted for the Iraq War based on the largely accepted intelligence at the time, makes it clear that he misunderstood the question. But his wordy, muddled response to Kelly’s follow-up didn’t help matters.
“You don’t think it was a mistake?” she asked.
“In retrospect, the intelligence that everyone saw ... was faulty. And in retrospect, once we invaded and took out Saddam Hussein, we didn’t focus on security first. And the Iraqis, in this incredibly insecure environment, turned on the United States military because there was no security for themselves and their families.”
This murky response was far from characteristic for this Bush, who is usually as fluent in policy as he is in Spanish. It did, however, highlight the challenges he faces as a Bush who, (1) tends to overthink (regrettably, this time, aloud) and, (2) may be too nice to be president.
We can easily imagine what was likely going through his mind:
I’m not going to say my brother was wrong. How do I say it was a mistake when so many people died? Was it a mistake? I have no idea. Maybe we’ll know in 150 years. Oh, Lord, what was the question?
There isn’t space here to relitigate the Iraq War, but polls show that a majority of Americans now think it was a mistake. It must be brutal, therefore, to be the brother of the man who led the charge and, as a presidential hopeful, to be asked to either defend or condemn his actions.
It is fair to ask what purpose such a question really serves. As Clinton might have responded, “What difference at this point does it make?”
I’m not sure there was a correct answer Bush could have given. Even had he understood and answered simply, “Of course not,” the follow-up would have been, “So you think Iraq was a mistake?” And then, “So you’re saying your brother was wrong?”
Let’s not be coy. Some reporters are dying to provoke the headline: “Jeb throws W. under the bus.”
In that first exchange with Kelly — and subsequently with others who kept pressing him — Bush revealed more than his discomfort with that particular question. It is clear that he has some painful adjustments to make if he is to launch a presidential run.
He is obviously defensive about his brother and uncomfortable separating policy from the personal. We know this both from his resort to sarcasm and his default to blame the “they,” aka the media.
“So just for the newsflash to the world, if they’re trying to find places where there’s big space between me and my brother, this might not be one of those.”
There’s nothing wrong with family loyalty, but Bush could take a page from Clinton. She is (boldly, calculatingly) distancing herself from some of her husband’s policies, trying to differentiate her candidacy from his presidency.
My unsolicited advice to Bush is to give his brother and father a big hug — and walk away. If he is, indeed, to be his own man, then he must separate himself from his family.
Lose the phrase: “My brother’s presidency” and “me and my brother.” If the 41st and 43rd presidents must be mentioned, their names are President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush.
Winning a presidential nomination and election requires a toughness of intellect and also a hardening of the heart. This is really the test to which Jeb was subjected this past week, and he flubbed.
He also demonstrated that, compared with the presumptive Democratic nominee, he is thus far out of his league.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.