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 the former Florida governor with an opening to make the case more clearly and forcefully than before that his leadership skills and experience make him best equipped to be commander in chief.
“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 Clinton for the “absence of leadership” he says 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 imposed by sequestration and vowed to reinvigorate the U.S. military.
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, appearing on 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 bulk collection of U.S. phone data.
He has railed against the foreign policy agendas of Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Clinton, and on Wednesday Bush added secretary of State John Kerry 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 Cruz (Texas) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) for failing to back Obama’s 2013 request for military intervention in Syria and questioning whether GOP poll leaders, real estate magnate Donald Trump 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 stark reminder of terrorism’s reach 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 Jeb 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 focus on foreign policy could also boost Rubio, Bush’s main rival for the establishment mantle and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who is viewed by many as among the party’s foremost national security experts.
Other establishment candidates, such as 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 a Tuesday 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 been more nuanced, an approach that has made his life difficult in the typically black-and-white world of primary campaigns. Bush has said the U.S. has an obligation to keep Christians in Syria safe, advocating for a safe zone for refugees overseas and saying he thinks the Obama administration’s screening processes may not be sufficient.
But his belief that the refugees 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’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-edged sword given his name and association with his brother.”
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 has 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.”