Jeb Bush’s national security gamble

Jeb Bush on Wednesday laid out his plan to strengthen the military and defend the nation from the threat of terrorism, seizing on national security to turn around a struggling presidential campaign. 

The coordinated terrorist attacks across Paris last week, which left 129 dead and scores more wounded, has provided Bush with an opening to make the case more clearly and forcefully than he has before: that his leadership skills and experience make him best equipped to be commander in chief. 

ADVERTISEMENT
Republicans say that with the Iowa caucuses nearing and the next GOP debate about a month away, it could be Bush’s last best opportunity to pull his campaign from the doldrums. 

“He’s close to being dead and done so this is his big moment,” said veteran GOP strategist Ed Rollins. “He has this opportunity now to step up and make the case for his experience and his ability to be commander in chief. If he can’t break through on this then he’s not going to break through at all.” 

Bush seems to recognize the stakes. 

Speaking Wednesday at The Citadel, a military academy in the early-voting state of South Carolina, Bush hammered President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump turns up heat on AG Sessions over recusal Mellman: Trump love? Overnight Cybersecurity: Senate Judiciary reportedly drops Manafort subpoena | Kushner meets with House Intel | House passes Russia sanctions deal | What to watch at 'hacker summer camp' MORE for the “absence of leadership” he says has led to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other terror groups. 

Speaking in a state with a heavy military presence, Bush chastised lawmakers on Capitol Hill for the “irrational” military spending cuts from sequestration and vowed to return the U.S. to a place of military superiority. 

He warned of the threat from “radical Islamic terrorists” who have “declared war on the Western world,” arguing that their aim is “total destruction” and the only option for the U.S. is to completely annihilate the enemy. 

And Bush vowed to be the commander in chief he says the nation has been lacking under Obama’s leadership. 

“Our armed forces need to know that support for the military is not another partisan issue and that their commander in chief is not just another politician,” said Bush, surrounded by uniformed students. “In every circumstance, against every attempt to shortchange our military, our troops need to be certain that the commander in chief has their back. I will.” 

Bush has been blanketing the airwaves since the attacks, hitting the cable and network news shows in an attempt to stand out among a field of GOP candidates with no shortage of foreign policy experts and national security hawks.

Bush has urged the White House to declare war on ISIS, insisted on more troops in the region, called for a no-fly zone over Syria and advocated for the reauthorization of the National Security Agency’s metadata spy program. 

He has railed against the foreign policy agendas of Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Clinton, and on Wednesday Bush added secretary of State John KerryJohn KerrySenators who have felt McCain's wrath talk of their respect for him Dems see huge field emerging to take on Trump Budowsky: Dems need council of war MORE to his hit list, admonishing Kerry for saying there is a “rationale” behind the ISIS attacks. 

Bush has also sought to draw distinctions between himself and the other Republican candidates running for president, swiping at Sens. Ted CruzTed CruzMcCain votes to advance ObamaCare repeal, replace after vowing to oppose Senate rejects ObamaCare repeal, replacement amendment Senate Dem: We’re trying to block a recess appointment to replace Sessions MORE (Texas) and Marco RubioMarco RubioMexican politicians have a new piñata: Donald Trump Bush ethics lawyer: Congress must tell Trump not to fire Mueller The private alternative to the National Flood Insurance Program  MORE (Fla.) for failing to back Obama’s military intervention request for Syria in 2013, and questioning whether GOP front-runners, real estate magnate Donald TrumpDonald TrumpDem rep: Trump can't deliver on promise because of Russia probe Trump turns up heat on AG Sessions over recusal Trump: 'I won't say' that I should be on Mount Rushmore MORE and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, have the judgment, temperament or depth of knowledge to lead. 

It’s a point that Citadel cadet Grant Miller, a 5th Battalion clerk, made on Bush’s behalf in an introductory speech on Wednesday. 

“It’s of great concern that the majority of front-runners in the race for the Republican nomination do not have the experience to deal with the threat of radical Islam,” Miller said before inviting Bush on stage. 

Those close to Bush have been enthused by his response, believing the heavy turn of events will turn voters away from the political newcomers at the top of the polls. 

“Clearly these issues fall in [Bush’s] wheelhouse,” said Dov Zakheim, an undersecretary of Defense in former President George W. Bush’s administration who has advised Bush on national defense.

“He’s not a Johnny-come-lately on national security who suddenly started cobbling together advisers and setting up briefings and memorizing lines, he’s got a strategy and a purpose to convey, and he’s been doing it since word first hit of this tragedy,” Zakheim said. 

Still, Republicans who admire Bush’s record and experience are conflicted over whether it may already be too late for a comeback. 

Many Republicans are coming around to the notion that they badly misread the mood of the conservative electorate, and that the success of Trump and Carson represents a new political landscape with little room for a candidate of Bush’s pedigree. 

“Does [Jeb Bush] have gravitas? Of course,” said Reed Galen, a veteran of former President George W. Bush’s campaigns. “It just might not matter anymore.” 

Republicans point to the large and fractured field of candidates, which has made it difficult for anyone to break out, and argue that there are host of contenders who are strong on national security. 

The turn to foreign policy could also boost Rubio, Bush’s main rival for the establishment mantle and a high-ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who is viewed by many as among the party’s foremost national security experts. 

Others running in Bush’s establishment lane, like Ohio Gov. John Kasich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, are similarly seeking to showcase their national security or law enforcement bona fides.

“Republicans want someone to lead the country in the fight against ISIS,” said Republican strategist David Payne. “We have a lot of candidates who can make the case that they’re best on that, so Jeb doesn’t just become the default go-to candidate there.” 

Republicans also say that Bush continues to stumble in reaching out to grassroots conservatives. In aTuesday interview with Bloomberg Politics, Bush split from many in his party, saying there shouldn’t be a blanket ban against Syrian refugees resettling in the U.S. 

Here, Bush has taken a more nuanced tack — an approach that has made his life difficult in the black-and-white world of primary campaigning. Bush has said that the U.S. has an obligation to keep Christians in Syria safe, advocating for a safe zone for refugees overseas, and warning that the Obama administration’s screening processes may not be sufficient. 

But his belief that Syrians shouldn’t be rejected out of hand reminds some of his compassionate conservatism on the issue of immigration, which has been a weakness. 

“He certainly isn’t talking to the base when he says something like that,” Rollins said. "I don’t think he understands the base. It’s statements like that that could make it impossible for him to recover.” 

And down the road, Republicans say Bush’s struggles in dealing with his brother George W. Bush’s legacy could haunt him.

“National security could certainly give his campaign a much-needed renewed sense of purpose,” said Republican strategist Nino Saviano. “But it could also be a double-edge sword given his name and association with his brother. … I’d say, he needs to go for it but weigh and choose his words carefully.” 

But with policy expertise and steady-handedness suddenly at a premium, Republicans say that at the very least Bush is in a better position now than he’s been in months. 

“Experience suddenly matters more than it has up until now,” said Payne. “I suspect some national security voters who wrote Jeb off will be giving him a second look.”