Ace says yes. I’m not convinced.
If Donald Trump is right, and George W. Bush deliberately schemed with his neo-con advisers to “lie” us into a phony war with Iraq, what does that say about the average Republican voter who supported Bush from 1999, voted for him, defended him through the recount, cried with him on 9/11, agreed with him on Iraq, defended him from ceaseless liberal attacks on him during the war, defended him from Obama’s never-expiring “Blame Bush” blame-shifting, etc.?
If Trump is right, then we’re not just wrong to have supported him. If Trump’s right, we’re goddamned rubes and fools to have defended this Actual Hitler-Level Monster for going on 17 years now…
This is a long way of saying Trump specifically and completely contradicted a belief that 75-80% of Republicans have about Bush — that he was a fundamentally decent man, perhaps overwhelmed by a very difficult period, who made an erroneous decision based on incomplete information — and instead offered a new belief, that Bush deliberately lied about Iraq’s WMD’s, a position that 75-80% of Republicans have long not only rejected but have been actively hostile towards…
I think Trump, who has been a past-master at getting people to buy-in to a very low-cost premise — “Let’s Make America Great Again” — just made a very high cost premise central to buying into him.
In other words, most Republicans have too much of their own political ego invested in the idea of George W. Bush’s basic decency after 15 years to now accept Trump telling them that was a stupid investment. The psychological blow of admitting it would be too heavy; if Ace is right, they’d sooner turn on Trump than cut Dubya loose and admit they were suckers all along. That’s one way of looking at it. Another way, though, is that Trump is offering some Republicans a type of opportunity about which he knows a lot: He’s giving them a chance to declare bankruptcy on their Bush investment. Dubya’s legacy, especially as regards Iraq, has sat heavily on the party’s shoulders through two terms of Obama and now, implausibly, threatens to affect a presidential primary in 2016 thanks to Jeb’s insistence on going forward. Trump’s offering Republicans the chance to lay down the weight. Declare bankruptcy on Bush and support Trump in doing whatever the hell he’s really planning to do as president. Attacking Bush as a liar rather than as an incompetent is risky for the reasons Ace says, but if you’re offering someone bankruptcy on a political investment it’s arguably better to denigrate that investment than to praise it for having had “good intentions” or whatever. If you’re a GOPer who’s remained more or less loyal to Bush for the past 10 years, getting permission from Trump to call him a liar might help you make the break more cleanly and quickly than an elaborate, anguished “he’s a good man but…” argument would.
All of this assumes, though, that voters who watched the debate were paying close attention to Trump’s choice of words and that their thinking about Dubya and Trump proceeds in a clear, linear way — i.e., “Trump says Bush lied about Iraq, but I think Iraq was merely a disastrous but well-intentioned mistake. Damn that Trump! I’m done with him!” I’ll bet, for many viewers, the lie/incompetence distinction that’s so important to people who follow politics closely either went right over their heads or was assimilated long ago into a judgment that Iraq was a terrible idea and Bush is morally responsible to some great, yet vague, degree. To the average voter, “Bush lied” may be less a specific accusation of high criminal treachery committed by Bush than an especially emphatic way of saying “Bush’s performance in Iraq was really, really bad, much worse than Republicans typically admit.” I think a lot of Republicans would agree with that even if they don’t agree with Trump on the specifics of his charge. And they may appreciate that someone more mainstream within the party than Ron Paul is finally on a debate stage saying it. Especially when the alternative, rallying to the Bushes’ defense, implicitly also means rallying to Prince Jeb. That’s the context for Trump’s “Bush lied” accusation, after all — it’s an attack on Jeb via an attack on his brother. To the extent voters interpret it that way, they’ll be more willing to give Trump a pass. All’s fair in love and politics, after all, especially when you’re trying to stop a political dynasty.
I think that, at this stage of the game, if you’re still open to Trump then nothing he says about Bush or Iraq is going to sway you. If you’ve sat through 20 Ted Cruz commercials a day in South Carolina attacking him as a phony conservative, a pro-choicer, and a parasite using eminent domain to prey on the working class, “Bush lied” isn’t the straw that’ll break the camel’s back. If anything, it’s all part of Trump’s Republican reboot. Trumpmania is a catharsis, repudiating the establishment and its idols (except Reagan, who’s simply too sanctified). If Bush gets caught up in that, eh. That’s all part of Year Zero. If Trump ends up paying a price for this, I think it’s more likely to come after he’s the nominee and some segment of conservatives decides that they can’t in good conscience support him in the general. “Bush lied!” will be part of a long list of disqualifying Trump positions for those righties once the time comes to make their break. For most Republicans it’ll be absorbed and put aside — but keep an eye on what happens this week as Dubya hits the trail for Jeb. The fact that he’ll be right there in front of South Carolinians, reminding them of how much they like him, makes Ace’s theory stronger than I would otherwise expect. If George W. charms the electorate and Trump keeps attacking, his “reboot” may come off as boorishness towards a former Republican president and some SC voters who otherwise might not have thought much about it may feel pulled to defend Dubya. That’d be a bad outcome for Trump. If he’s smart, he’ll let what he said at the debate stand without doubling down. We’ll see.
Exit question: This weekend Trump said about the war, “I’m the only one with the vision to have said don’t do it.” Is that true? BuzzFeed couldn’t find any pre-war statements by Trump that it was a bad idea — but did find a passage in his 2000 book about Saddam’s nuclear program in which Trump wrote, “if we decide a strike against Iraq is necessary, it is madness not to carry the mission to its conclusion.” Hmmmm.