Questioned on Iraq War, Bush misfires

Questioned on Iraq War, Bush misfires

Jeb Bush has repeatedly stumbled over questions about the Iraq War in the past 48 hours, first saying he would have made the same decision as his brother and invaded the country, and later saying he wasn’t sure what the right decision would have been.

Republicans have long feared that the former Florida governor could have a problem with the shadows thrown from George W. Bush’s presidency, and his missteps did nothing to ease those worries.

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“Jeb Bush has just converted an election that should be about the past eight years into an election about the eight years before that,” conservative writer David Frum lamented on Twitter moments after Bush dodged a question from conservative pundit Sean Hannity on the subject late Tuesday afternoon.

Democrats were gleeful to see Bush, who is all but certain to declare a 2016 bid for the White House, trip over such a predictable hurdle.

“A couple of times already in this campaign, Bush has had a little bit of trouble hitting the curveball, even when you know the curveball is coming at you,” said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane. “This was a question that you had to know was coming. So either he wasn’t ready to answer it, or they genuinely thought this was the best answer. Either way, it’s problematic.”

Bush’s problems began with a Monday night appearance on Fox News’s “The Kelly File.”

Asked by host Megyn Kelly whether he would have supported the invasion of Iraq, “knowing what we know now,” Bush replied that he would have done so, sparking a storm of criticism, including from conservative commentators.

By Tuesday morning, Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist and Bush ally, was saying on CNN’s “New Day” that Bush had told her he had misheard the question.

When Hannity asked him if he would make a different decision now, Bush replied, “Yeah. I don't know what that decision would have been. That’s a hypothetical.

Iraq is an especially tricky issue for Bush: Criticizing the invasion would force him to repudiate one of the biggest decisions his brother made during his presidency.

But by an overwhelming margin, the public believes the war in Iraq was a mistake. In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted in October last year, 66 percent of registered voters said the war in Iraq was “not worth it,” compared with 26 percent who said it was. In June 2014, a Quinnipiac University poll found that 61 percent of registered voters thought going to war was “the wrong thing to do,” and 32 percent said it was the right move.

Conservative commentators seized on Bush’s remarks to Kelly on Monday to criticize him. Radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham said, “You can’t still think that going into Iraq, now, as a sane human being, was the right thing to do.” She added that if anyone did take that view, “there has to be something wrong with you.”

Byron York, writing in the Washington Examiner, argued that “if Jeb Bush sticks to his position — that he would still authorize war knowing what we know today — it will represent a step backward for the Republican Party.”

Daniel Larison of The American Conservative was scathing about the suggestion that Bush had “misheard” the question or that it could be blamed for his “awful” answer. 

“If he ‘misheard’ the question, it was because he was already preparing to give the pat unthinking answer that so many pro-war politicians have given before him,” Larison wrote.

Bush’s struggles with the Iraq War bring to mind Hillary Clinton more than any other Republican in the mix for 2016. In 2008, Clinton avoided apologizing for her Senate vote authorizing the use of force in Iraq — an evasion that cost her dearly as she lost to then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

Clinton, the current front-runner for the Democratic nomination, finally addressed the vote with the publication of her memoir, Hard Choices, earlier this year.

“I thought I had acted in good faith and made the best decision I could with the information I had,” she wrote. “And I wasn’t alone in getting it wrong. But I still got it wrong. Plain and simple.”

Even though the years since then have made the Iraq War a less central and less visceral issue, it is still difficult for Republicans in general — and Bush in particular — to grapple with.

“Republicans want to distance themselves from the war without divorcing themselves from it,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “This was a Republican president, and it never serves the party well to say that everything the last Republican president did was wrong. And for Jeb, it is even trickier because he is talking about his brother.”

That isn’t just problematic when it comes to Iraq. Last week, Bush caused a stir when The Washington Post reported he had named George W. Bush as his most influential adviser on the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Sen. Ted Cruz, who is also running for president, broke with Bush on the Iraq issue.

“Knowing what we know now, of course we wouldn’t go into Iraq,” the Texas Republican told The Hill on Tuesday.

“At the time, the intelligence reports indicated that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction that posed a significant national threat to this country. That’s the reason there was such widespread bipartisan support for going into Iraq,” he added. “We now know, in hindsight, those intelligence reports were false.”

“Without that predicate, it is difficult to imagine the decision would have been made to go into Iraq, and that predicate proved erroneous,” Cruz said.