Campaigns are not foreign to Jeb Bush. While running three statewide campaigns in Florida, he also learned the ups and downs of national campaigns with his father and brother, George H.W. Bush (Bush 41) and George W. Bush (Bush 43), respectively.
Since 1980, a Bush has appeared at the top of the national ticket six times as a candidate for either president or vice president of the United States. Jeb saw Bush 41 lampooned for not knowing the price of a gallon of milk during the 1992 campaign. Bush 43 survived a 2000 October Surprise revelation about a quarter-century-old DUI incident as well as a phony 2004 story about National Guard service.
Jeb is not an official candidate for president yet, but he spent precious time trying to recover a surprising fumble. He dropped the ball on the national stage not from a hard-hitting question by a reporter seeking a “gotcha” response, but from Fox News prime-time star Megyn Kelly.
When Kelly asked, “Knowing what you know now, would you have authorized the invasion” of Iraq? Bush quickly responded, “I would have, and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody.”
Kelly seemed surprised as well and asked, “You don’t think it was a mistake?” His answer mentioned “faulty intelligence” but did not include an assurance he would have, or might have, done things differently with accurate intelligence.
Democrats and some conservatives pounced. They started making the case that Jeb would have invaded Iraq even if he knew there were no weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). “Don’t take it from us, Jeb said it himself” is a paraphrase of the line of attack.
Bush called into the Sean Hannity radio show on Tuesday to revise and extend his remarks. “I interpreted (Kelly’s) question wrong, I guess – I was talking about, given what people knew then,” he told Hannity.
But he left another hurdle to climb. Bush responded to Hannity’s repetition of Kelly’s original question with “I don’t know what the decision would have been. That’s a hypothetical, but mistakes were made, as they always are in life.”
Perhaps he sought to prevent headlines and stories saying “Jeb abandons brother on Iraq.” Whatever the reason, he surely understood he could return to his message of Right to Rise and tout his conservative record as governor only after this issue was put to rest.
Thursday’s statement in Arizona that he “would not have gone into Iraq,” will help make the issue recede for the time being. He should also expect opponents to make future comments on his decisiveness.
Yes, Bush committed a political fumble. It happens to nearly every candidate (or soon-to-be candidate), especially those on the national stage.
They will attack him for taking three days to state the obvious answer. Who could possibly think that any president would invade Iraq again knowing we would lose 4,500 Americans, spend billions of dollars on nation building, and then watch much of that destroyed by the rise of ISIS?
No invasion, no ISIS; at least not in Iraq on Saddam’s watch. That is not a hypothetical. (Yes, President Obama’s total troop withdrawal greatly assisted the ISIS rampage.)
A friendly Bush rival, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, clearly opined that Bush 43 would not have ordered the attack knowing how things would turn out. Jeb has made it clear that he agrees.
Bush’s supporters, as well as some detractors, had to be surprised at the three-day struggle. They expected a different response, something like:
“Faulty intelligence led Congress – including Hillary Clinton, I might add – to authorize the use of force and my brother to then order it. Today, knowing the truth and the tragedy that followed, Congress would not have authorized such an invasion and that would have been the end of it.”
What was the alternative? Sticking with the original response meant Bush would attack Iraq anyway, thereby effectively ending his candidacy for president at that moment.
That alone demonstrates the political danger this issue held. Bush had to know from the time he began considering a run for president that he would be asked to comment on some of his brother’s decisions and policies.
His now-definitive response allows him to finally change the subject and move toward his official announcement. As former North Carolina State basketball coach, the late Jim Valvano, liked to say “survive and advance.”
Bob Sparks is a business and political consultant based in Tallahassee. Column courtesy of Context Florida.