“Jeb Bush’s quiet, no-rush non-campaign got a touch louder over the weekend,” ABC News Political Director Rick Klein observed on Monday, “with a pair of moves that suggest a recalibration during this pre-announcement phase.”
It’s hard to argue with this observation. The former Florida governor appears to have determined that his low-profile campaign is yielding diminishing returns as public polling indicates that he is drawing suboptimal levels of support in polls of early state GOP presidential primary voters. In order to stop the bleeding, Bush is poking his head above the parapet by sitting down for interviews with reporters.
In one interview set to air on Monday night, former Gov. Bush joined Fox News Channel host Megyn Kelly. The clip that Fox released ahead of that interview focused exclusively on one issue: The Iraq War.
When asked if he would have authorized that war as his brother did even given what we know today, Bush did not hesitate before answering that he would have ordered the invasion of Iraq. Bush did not draw a second breath, however, before justifying that position by invoking former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“I would have, and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody,” Bush said of the mission to topple Saddam Hussein. “And so would almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.”
Bush went on to concede that the pre-war intelligence was “faulty” and that his brother’s administration did not devote a satisfactory level of attention to securing the country. “By the way, guess who thinks that those mistakes took place as well? George W. Bush,” Jeb Bush insisted. “Yes, I mean, so just for the news flash 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.”
By invoking Clinton in his defense of the Iraq War, Jeb Bush is signaling his intention to continue to run a general election campaign and remain above the fray of a nasty internecine primary.
But is this a good strategy? Hillary Clinton has paid a high political price for her vote in favor of the Iraq War. In her 2014 book Hard Choices, Clinton finally apologized for her vote to authorize the use of force, but she has not gone so far as to champion a dovish approach to foreign policy. Quite the opposite, in fact. A recent profile of Clinton’s nascent perinatal campaign staff via Vox.com’s Jonathan Allen suggests that the former secretary of state will not be calibrating her foreign policy positions to appeal to her party’s left-wing.
“For liberals hoping Clinton will undergo a left-oriented metamorphosis on foreign policy to match the economic and social policy transformations that have her sounding more and more like an Elizabeth Warren acolyte, [Clinton foreign policy advisor Jake] Sullivan’s selection will be a disappointment,” Allen wrote. “He won’t drag Clinton to the left — or anywhere else.”
Jeb Bush’s response to this question from Kelly epitomizes the liabilities associated with his candidacy if he does emerge as the GOP’s 2016 standard-bearer. Virtually every Republican in the race does not have to say whether or not they would have supported the Iraq War in 2003. The majority of the field of GOP presidential candidates is made up of Republicans who did not occupy federal or statewide office at the time. Most of the other Republican candidates can express their support for the mission in Iraq while critiquing its execution from a safe political remove. Only out of an obligation to defend and rehabilitate his brother’s presidency did Jeb Bush feel compelled to respond to Kelly’s question as he did.
Bush didn’t need to answer this difficult inquiry, but he felt as though he had no choice. That condition will repeat itself over the course of the 2016 campaign as the press seeks to re-litigate the lingering grievances against the George W. Bush administration.
If Jeb Bush does secure the GOP presidential nomination, the 2016 presidential race will come down to two candidates who would have both approved of the Iraq War, even though only one will be honest about that decision. Advantage Bush? I’m not so sure. To gamble that the electorate would prefer to have a truth-teller in office rather than a politician who weaves comforting fictions is a risky bet.