Whether he meant it this way or not, this answer’s going to be interpreted as “Bush says not letting him dodge questions about Iraq dishonors the troops.”

Think general election voters will let him slide?

Asked by an audience member during a Nevada town hall about his interview on the subject with FOX News’ Megyn Kelly, Bush reiterated his claim that he misheard her question about whether he would have authorized the invasion of Iraq. But he disputed the questioner’s premise in asking “Don’t you think running for president is hypothetical?”

“If we’re going to get back into hypotheticals, I think it does a disservice to a lot of people who sacrificed a lot,” Bush said…

“Talking about the future is more than fair. Talking about the past – and saying how would you have done something after the fact is a little tougher. And it doesn’t necessarily change anything. That was my point,” he said [to reporters] afterward.

WaPo has more of his answer, noting that when he was asked directly what distinguishes him from Dubya on policy, he didn’t offer anything:

“What we ought to be focused on is what are the lessons learned?” he added. “There are two lessons. One is, if you’re going to go to war, make sure that you have the best intelligence possible and the intelligence broke down. That’s clear, clearly one of the mistakes of this. And secondly, if you’re going to do this have a strategy of security and a strategy and have a strategy to get out. And both of those things didn’t work the way they did, although I give my brother credit. Once the mess was created, he solved that mess with the surge and created when he left a much more stable Iraq that now, that was squandered in some ways when President Obama did not keep any small amount of troop level.”

Okay, but the money question about Jeb Bush isn’t what he’d do as president once a massive invasion is launched. The question is whether he’d be as willing as his brother to order a massive invasion in the first place. Asking him to revisit the Iraq war is shorthand for that. What are his criteria for putting boots on the ground? Is removing a toxic player like Saddam reason enough to do it? Is forcibly reshaping a country from an autocracy to a democracy enough of a reason, as part of a counterterror strategy to liberalize the Middle East? Ted Cruz and Chris Christie implicitly answered “no” to both of those questions when they said they wouldn’t have gone to war with better intelligence on WMDs. Jeb not only won’t give the same answer, he now seems to find it vaguely offensive — on behalf of the troops, mind you, not himself — that he’s even being asked to say whether it was a mistake. As one Twitter pal put it, “By not discussing ‘hypotheticals’ we avoid talking about how many more sacrifices Jeb Bush would authorize as POTUS.” The men and women who’d fall in the next war have a right to know from the would-be next C-in-C what he might be prepared to sign them up for, no?

The more I think about it, the more clever it seems to me that Cruz and Christie were willing to give straight answers on this. They’re going to catch some flak from stalwart Iraq war supporters in the primaries for doing so, but they can tolerate that. Anyone who’d rule out a candidate for saying he wouldn’t have gone to war knowing then what we know is probably sufficiently super-hawkish that he’s already committed to Lindsey Graham (or Marco Rubio). The benefit of this play for Cruz and Christie is that any discussion of Iraq, whatever their own answers might be, is bound to turn an uncomfortably hot spotlight on Jeb, and that spotlight’s getting hotter the more Bush hems and haws over his response. If you think Jeb’s bound to be one of the final three or four candidates left standing, if only because he’s raised enough money already to keep him campaigning until next summer, then keeping Iraq front and center is a way to remind GOP voters that Mr. Electability isn’t so electable after all. Amazing that Jeb’s inadvertently helping them carry that message, but there you go.

Exit question: By Jeb’s logic, decorum means American voters should never question whether a particular war was worth waging, even in the middle of a national election, right?

Update: Not for a second do I believe this, but here’s Rubio giving the smart answer that Jeb should have given:

Giving Dubya the benefit of the doubt is a shrewd way to defuse the issue among Republicans whose personal affection for Bush might otherwise cause them to bristle at this sort of second-guessing. As for why I don’t believe a word of this, it’s because Rubio’s said things to the contrary — as recently as six weeks ago.

Asked if it was a mistake to invade Iraq in 2003, Rubio said “I don’t believe it was. The world is a better place because Saddam Hussein doesn’t run Iraq.”

Surely Rubio knew when he said that it was a dangerous position and that he’d be hammered for it by Democrats if he made it to the general election. Why reverse course now just because Jeb is catching hell for his (much milder) defense of the decision to go to war in 2003?

Update: Rubio fans are claiming that today’s answer isn’t inconsistent with what he told Fox News six weeks ago. You judge for yourself. Here’s what he said today to Charlie Rose, per Rubio’s office:

Rose: “Let me talk about Iraq and an issue that came up yesterday with Jeb Bush talking about the invasion, looking back. He was asked a question by Megan Kelly, and he says he misunderstood the question, so I’ll ask you the question that I think she intended to ask. Which was, if you look at the Iraq war, after finding out that there were no weapons of mass destruction, would you, if you knew that, have been in favor of the Iraqi invasion?”

Rubio: “Well, not only would I not have been in favor of it, President Bush would not have been in favor of it, and he said so.”

Rose: “Vice President Cheney and others have said we would want to go ahead, notwithstanding.”

Rubio: “Well, President Bush has said that he regrets that the intelligence was faulty. I don’t think the Congress would have voted in favor of an authorization if they didn’t know that. But, let’s also be fair about the context. Yes, there was intelligence that was faulty, but there was a history with Iraq of evasion, it was a country that had had mobile units in the past that it had used for both CW – chemical weapons – and biological weapons capabilities. It is a country that had actively, in the past, at the moment that that decision was made that had invaded a neighboring country in Kuwait. It was a country that had an open dispute going on with international bodies about the inspections, and allowing international inspectors to come in and view things. Ultimately, though, I do not believe that if the intelligence had said that Iraq does not have a weapon of mass destruction capability, I don’t believe President Bush would’ve authorized to move forward.

Here’s what he said to Fox on March 30th:

JULIE ROGINSKY, “The Five” SHOW GUEST CO-HOST: My question about that Senator, that’s a good point. But, we went into Iraq over a decade ago, and Iraq was a great counterweight to Iran, back when Saddam Hussein was there, that guy he was. So won’t you think having gone into Iraq, we’re these that empower Iran to then, be able to have that’s sphere of influence which that they did not have before we went in there in the first place. Was it a mistake to go to war to Iraq?

RUBIO: No, I don’t believe

(CROSSTALK)

RUBIO: The world is a better place because Saddam Hussein does not in Iraq. Here’s what I think might have happened, had we not gone. And you might had an arms race to put Iraq in Iran, they are both would purse the weapon. I will be dealing with two problems, not just one. We forget that Iraq, at the time of the invasion, was an open defiance of numerous United Nations Security Council resolutions, that the United Nations refused to enforce. They were, they were, they were refused to comply with allowing inspectors in. Repeatedly, this was a country whose leader had gassed his own people on numerous occasions. So I think, Hindsight is always 20/20, but we don’t know what the world would look like if Saddam Hussein was still there. But I doubt it would look better in terms of — it will be worst — or we are just bad for different reasons. I think it’s very difficult to predict, I think — a better notion is, at the end of the Iraq war, Iraq had an opportunity to have a stable, peaceful future. The U.S. pulled out, completely abandoning it to Maliki, who then proceeded to move forward on these very aggressive strategies against the Sunni. Creating the intellectual and — environment, that allowed ISIS to come back in and take advantage of what’s happening.

ROGINSKY: So, I’m sorry, Senator. You actually believe that Saddam Hussein was pursing nuclear weapons?

RUBIO: No, I believe that Saddam — well, Saddam Hussein was an open violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions, including not allowing inspectors to come in on the ground, et cetera, and the world refused to enforce it. So that, that’s another point that means to be remembered that after time of that invasion, Saddam Hussein was an open defiance of numerous Security Council resolutions to refuse to comply with.

That’s the same answer, claims Rubio’s spokesman. Well … no, not really. The first answer implies that WMD was the core issue, in which case the war shouldn’t have happened. The second answer implies that Saddam was the ultimate weapon of mass destruction and eliminating him arguably made the region safer today than it otherwise would have been, in which case presumably the war should have happened. If you want to be charitable to Rubio, you can parse this finely and say that it’s technically not inconsistent to believe that (a) the war shouldn’t have happened if we’d known then what we know now and (b) it turns out to be a good thing that it happened anyway. Iraq, in other words, was a fortuitous mistake on balance, with the faulty intel on WMD the catalyst. That may be a tougher position to defend in the general election than whatever Jeb ends up settling on.