To appreciate one reason why Donald Trump is thumping Jeb! in the polls, substitute a question mark for the exclamation point.
Jeb? isn’t doing so well at persuading people that what they think they heard isn’t what he meant to say.
It doesn’t take a degree in psychology to know that someone’s first, unguarded remark reveals much more about him than any effort to explain it.
The latest example is his vacillating position on his brother’s war in Iraq.
Early in the campaign he was asked unmistakably that if we knew then what we know now — that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction — should we have invaded? Bush’s answer: Yes. Days later, he said he had misunderstood and misspoken and that the proper answer was no.
But last week, bristling at the attention being paid to surrounding himself with advisers like Paul Wolfowitz and other professional hawks who had coached his brother into the war, Bush ventured that “taking out Saddam Hussein turned out to be a pretty good deal.”
Amazingly, he added that “the mission was accomplished” — doesn’t that sound familiar? — by the time his brother left office.
Far from being a good deal, it was the worst foreign policy blunder this nation has ever made.
And if Bush can’t see that, he is a threat to repeat it. His appetite for throwing more lives and treasure into the maw of the Middle East is already obvious.
Saddam was a tyrant, to be sure. But the grim reality of geopolitics is that the devils we know are often better than the devils we don’t. Saddam’s rule kept Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites from each other’s throats and was an effective counterweight to Iran, a more dangerous potential enemy. Saddam misjudged the risk of an attack by the United States because he wanted Iran to think that he might indeed have weapons of mass destruction.
The Bush dynasty made war with no thought of how to win the peace. With Saddam deposed, George Bush’s viceroy then sacked the entire Iraqi army, assuring an ample supply of fighters for sectarian militias. The rise of ISIS owes directly to the invasion and to the willful malfeasance of subsequent Iraqi leaders who fostered sectarian rivalry and tolerated a tissue-paper military force.
Are the people in ISIS-held Iraqi territory better off now than they were under Saddam Hussein? Hardly.
Jeb’s take on that is to blame President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for wasting the success of the 2007 surge by withdrawing troops from Iraq.
But what actually wasted the surge was something not even an entire American army could have prevented. It was the deliberate conduct of Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, who resumed persecuting the Sunni population that General Petraeus and his soldiers had worked so hard and so well to win over.
For more detail, read “The Surge Fallacy” in the September edition of The Atlantic.
And from the Iraqi Parliament itself, there’s now a report blaming al-Maliki and other former officials — not Obama or Clinton — for losing Mosul to ISIS.
However else Jeb may try to explain it later, it’s clear from his unguarded remarks that he’s as much of a hawk as his brother was, just as eager to make America the policeman of the world, no matter what it costs us or the people we presume to “help.”
It’s nothing new, of course, for Jeb? to speak in haste and have to explain at leisure.
In 1994, he was on his way to winning his first race for governor of Florida — his first campaign for any office — when an African-American woman asked him at a candidate forum what he would do for blacks.
“Probably nothing,” he said.
Black voters took that remark to the polls, contributing significantly to his loss by merely 63,940 votes out of 4.2-million cast.
His explanation was a version of the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats argument. What he meant, he said, was that his policies would benefit all Floridians regardless of their race.
But a rising tide can’t lift boats that are moored to the docks. It swamps them. Bush couldn’t see how blacks had been moored to the dock by 2 1/2 centuries of slavery, another century of Jim Crow, government lending policies that perpetuated residential segregation and societal racism that still infests every corner of our economy and culture.
It takes special, targeted efforts to right such vast wrongs: among them, affirmative action and an enforceable Voting Rights Act.
For his winning 1998 campaign, Bush’s mea culpa was to help establish a charter school intended for disadvantaged black children. As governor, he aggressively promoted charters, private schools, and vouchers.
But he also single-handedly abolished affirmative action in university enrollment and government contracting — seeking and accepting no one’s counsel on that — and black enrollment at the flagship universities promptly and predictably plummeted.
There again, the real Bush emerged: blacks don’t need help. No one does.
That’s the myopic view of a white man born to wealth and privilege. So it’s no surprise to hear him remark to religious conservatives that “I’m not sure we need half a billion dollars for women’s health issues,” It’s a factor in his desire to raise the Social Security retirement age even beyond the present target of 67.
Paul Krugman, The New York Times’ economic columnist, suggests that Bush and most other Republican candidates are targeting Social Security in order to coax campaign support from the wealthy right-wing lobby whose ultimate goal is to repeal it.
That may be so, but it’s just as plausible that Bush’s unguarded remarks reveal a simpler reason:
He just doesn’t get it.
Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives in Western North Carolina. Column courtesy of Context Florida.