By Scott Wong - 05/16/15 06:37 AM EDT
Jeb Bush stumbled over questions about the Iraq War this week, unnerving some congressional Republicans who wonder if he has what it takes to win the White House.
Steadfast allies to the former Florida governor say Bush is just a bit rusty and insist the gaffes won’t be debilitating ahead of his expected campaign for the 2016 GOP nomination.
“[I’m] flabbergasted at the degree of back and forth that’s ensued this week on the Middle East answer, correction, non-answer, correction, etc.,” said one GOP lawmaker from a early primary state who has yet to endorse anyone in the race.
“When your brother’s been president and authorized the use of force and your father was president and authorized the use of force,” the lawmaker added, “that’s a zone of certainty” that question will be asked.
A handful of GOP senators huddling on Capitol Hill were “incredulous” Bush wasn’t better prepared on the Iraq issue, joking about how many press aides he needed to answer such a basic question, according to an account in The New York Times.
And House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who hasn’t endorsed anyone but has spoken favorably of another presidential hopeful, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), suggested that Bush’s evolving answers on Iraq raised questions about his foreign-policy chops.
“Foreign policy is pretty important … Anybody who is running for president better darn well understand foreign policy. It’s not something you can be taught once you get on the job,” Chaffetz told The Hill in an interview. “It’s the big leagues and they’re playing hard ball. [Bush] has to explain it himself and if he has to re-explain it as he’s doing now, so be it.
“But Marco Rubio showed he was fairly deft in his ability to smoothly answer those same questions.”
Jeb Bush first stepped in it Monday when Fox News’ Megyn Kelly asked if he would have invaded Iraq in 2003 “knowing what we know now” — that U.S. intelligence proved to be faulty and Saddam Hussein didn’t have weapons of mass destruction. Yes, he replied.
The next day, Bush took to Sean Hannity’s radio show to explain he misinterpreted the question and called it a “hypothetical” he couldn’t answer. On Day 3, Bush’s line was that such questions do a “disservice” to those who perished in the war.
By the fourth day, Bush had finally settled on a clear answer: “Knowing what we know now, I would not invade.”
Bush’s surrogates on Capitol Hill concede this wasn’t Bush’s finest moment. But they contend that the two-term former governor has vast foreign-policy knowledge and is well-equipped to handle the rigors and pressures of the presidency.
“Obviously, people understand the history of his brother and having the last name. At the end of the day, when you’re playing hypotheticals, it’s sometimes a dangerous thing,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a Bush supporter and Air Force major who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. “I just think no matter how he answered, it would have made a headline.”
Bush’s close friend, former House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), characterized the governor’s answers on Iraq as a “momentary stumble” that paled in comparison to some of the controversies dogging presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
“Jeb did not finesse the answer in the right way. Now he’s hit his stride; he’s got it,” said Ros-Lehtinen, who will host a youth rally and fundraiser for Bush’s Right to Rise PAC on Monday in Sweetwater, Fla.
“With Hillary, what she’s got is an endemic, serious ethical lapse that requires a real explanation. That’s just a pattern of deception,” she said. “The emails, the Benghazi non-cooperation, the foreign cash for the foundation — we’re talking serious issues.”
But Bush’s Iraq fumble created an obvious opening for Rubio, Sen. Rand Paul, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and other GOP presidential rivals to pounce on the establishment favorite. And it’s re-opened old wounds in the party over a war that cost an unfathomable amount of U.S. blood and treasure.
“If I was Jeb Bush, I would have said I wish my brother would have apologized to the American people for an unnecessary war. When you have 4,000 Americans killed for a war that we should never had fought, where is the moral character to do what is right?” asked conservative Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), a Paul backer who voted for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but has turned into one of the biggest critics of those military campaigns.
“Jeb should have told the truth that the Bush administration manipulated the truth to sell the American people on a war that was unnecessary,” Jones said.
The Iraq issue has created another risk for Bush as well. Allies like GOP Rep. John Mica, a fellow Floridian, has defended Bush’s actions this week while opposing the future candidate’s latest position on the war.
“Personally, I supported going in and I still support going in,” said Mica, who was part of a group of GOP lawmakers who recently met with Bush in a Capitol Hill rowhouse. To say that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction is “complete bull.”
Saddam Hussein buried missiles, had the capability of delivering them, and had “acquired the means to develop weapons of mass destruction,” Mica continued. “I would have voted for it, and I would go in in a nanosecond knowing what I know now."
Other Republicans said it’s been “tough week” for Bush but argued it’s still early in the season.
“This stuff is like spring training. There is some All-Star shortstop who’s flubbing the ball because he’s just rusty, and that’s why you start these [campaigns] when you do,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who so far is neutral in the GOP primary.
“I just don’t see any lasting effect here. But you say to yourself, ‘Hey, we didn’t handle that very well. We need to get better.’”