In a two-day implosion over his still-incoherent comments about the Iraq War, initiated by former President George W. Bush, his brother, GOP presidential hopeful Jeb Bush first said that knowing what he knows now, he would have led the nation to war in Iraq — but the next day, he said he does not know what he would have done were he commander in chief at the time.
This mega-gaffe by the former Florida governor probably brought out champagne bottles for celebration at the campaign headquarters of Hillary Clinton, as well as began a fierce debate throughout the GOP, ignited a firestorm on conservative talk radio, created consternation among smart Republican campaign operatives and provoked a scramble among his opponents to exploit the blunder and avoid repeating it themselves.
Bush’s two-day implosion of confusion about his position on the Iraq War, which he may or may not get right on his third try, will do severe and lasting damage to his presidential prospects. Here are five reasons why.
First, the great challenge for Bush is to remain loyal to his brother while distinguishing a potential Bush 45 presidency from the unpopular legacy of the Bush 43 presidency.
The two most unpopular memories of the Bush 43 presidency are the Iraq War and the most devastating financial crash since the Great Depression.
By standing fully behind the decision of Bush 43 to invade Iraq in his first interview response, Jeb Bush on Monday raised deep concern about whether he would be a war-hungry president for a war-weary nation. By appearing incoherent and evasive in his second answer, on Tuesday, Bush seemed incompetent to be commander in chief as well as untrustworthy, claiming he misunderstood the question and failing to tell the truth about what he would do as president.
Bush has positioned himself in the worst possible political place, seeming to offer a third term of the Bush 43 presidency by combining the war policies of Iraq with the ineptness of crisis management after Hurricane Katrina struck.
Second, the Bush Iraq move will set off a chain reaction throughout a Republican Party that that is bitterly divided among its non-ideological leaders and strategists, who believe it is profoundly unwise to run as a war party in a war-weary nation; a more isolationist faction, led by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.); and neocon-sounding war hawks, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
Third, the Bush Iraq implosion creates a golden and sure-fire opportunity for Clinton to reassure Democrats that she has learned the lessons of the Iraq disaster that Bush would repeat, and reassure voters that she has the vast experience to be a steady commander in chief without seeking new wars to fight that should be avoided if possible.
Fourth, all Republican candidates are now forced to answer this loaded question: “Would you have invaded Iraq as Bush 43 did?” There is no politically good answer. If they answer yes, they alienate a majority of Republican, independent and Democratic voters. If they answer no, they incur and inflame the wrath of neoconservatives and conservatives who appear hungry to find new wars for America to fight.
Fifth, and potentially most important, the Jeb Bush Iraq War implosion raises core questions about his political competence as a presidential candidate and his governing competence as a potential president, which should have been his core strength. By failing to competently answer a predictable and vital question about his candidacy, was Bush intellectually lazy, sloppy, lightweight or negligently unprepared?
The contrast is powerful and stunning. The vastly experienced and highly qualified Hillary Clinton appears ready, steady, confident, poised and prepared to advance into the future the highly successful and fondly remembered legacy of the Bill Clinton presidency. Jeb Bush appears to promise the third term of the George W. Bush presidency, which voters would rather forget.
Budowsky was an aide to former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and Bill Alexander, then chief deputy majority whip of the House. He holds an LL.M. degree in international financial law from the London School of Economics. He can be read on The Hill’s Contributors Blog and reached at email@example.com.