As anyone with even a casual interest in politics must be aware, Jeb Bush had a difficult time last week dealing with self-inflicted wounds on the delicate subject of the Iraq invasion. It is delicate, of course, because the war is widely regarded as a disaster and one for which his brother George bears major responsibility. The first wound was inflicted on Monday when Bush apparently misheard a question and indicated that, even knowing what we now know, he would have approved the invasion. That mistake could have been quickly repaired and soon forgotten, but on Tuesday and Wednesday Bush dug the hole a bit deeper by saying that he had misheard the earlier question but was now declining to answer a “hypothetical” question. Only on Thursday did Bush get it right: “Knowing what we know now, I would not have engaged. I would not have gone into Iraq.”
There are of, course, those who still insist that, even in the absence of WMD, the invasion of Iraq was a good decision. Not surprisingly, their slender ranks include Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. They argue that, in addition to WMD, there were other reasons for toppling Saddam Hussein, among them his support of terrorists, including Palestinian suicide bombers and massacres of his own people. Whatever one thinks of such reasons (and we would find them insufficient), the threat of WMD was the linchpin in gaining Congressional approval of an invasion. And without Congressional approval, the Bush Administration would have had neither a legal basis nor political support for its action. Moreover, while everything else being equal, the world may have been made safer by the removal of Hussein, we believe that ISIS is a greater threat today than Hussein was or would likely have become. Thus, we are relieved that Bush rejected the Rumsfeld/Cheney position, even if it took him four days to do so.
As regular followers of RINOcracy.com may recall, we initially expressed support for Bush over a year ago and, as recently as January, confirmed our tentative endorsement. We explained why the endorsement remained tentative: “The endorsement has been tentative not only because Bush has not declared his candidacy, but has neither laid out his position on many major issues nor been exposed to the rough and tumble of the scrum that Republicans use to select a nominee.” Despite that qualification, we were as perplexed and dismayed as anyone (saving, perhaps some major contributors) at Bush’s stumbles. And we do not claim to have any clear idea of how damaging they will prove to be.
We think it would be an over-reaction to withdraw our support for Bush at this point. The mistakes, after all, were matters of style rather than substance. That does not make them insignificant, but it does make them more easily forgivable (and the election, after all, is nearly 18 months away). It would be premature, we think, to consign Bush’s errors to the political dungeon occupied by George Romney’s 1968 claim that he had been “brainwashed” into supporting the Vietnam war, or Gerald Ford’s 1978 insistence that “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” Perhaps they belong more in the category of Hillary Clinton’s oddly mistaken recollection that she had exited an airplane in Bosnia under sniper fire.
There is no indication that any Bush supporters have jumped ship. On the contrary, an article in Politico reported that Bush ended the week on a high note on Friday when he met with dozens of Republican Committee members at a meeting of the RNC in Phoenix. The members were said to have been impressed by Bush’s grasp of the issues and willingness to take and respond to questions on all manner of subjects. While Bush was questioned about his Iraq answers he was grilled more vigorously about his support for Common Core. And even those who disagreed with him gave him high marks for spontaneity and candor. As one participant put it:
“[Bush] was almost unapologetic in terms of saying ‘this is who I am and this is where I stand’ on issues like immigration and Common Core…. He’s not like Scott Walker trying desperately to ingratiate himself to social conservatives all of the sudden. He’s just going to be who he is.”
Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that if Bush should make a comparable mistake in the future, the damage will be compounded and possibly fatal to his chances. At the moment, Bush appears to be vulnerable merely by reason of the fact that his early decision and prodigious fund raising have failed to make him a front-runner. Indeed, rather than scaring away other candidates, Bush appears to have joined, or be about to join, a pack that is growing by the day. In that respect, we share the anxiety of Republican leaders reported in Sunday’s Washington Post:
Party officials are growing worried about a wide-open nominating contest likely to feature a historically large and diverse field. At best, they say, the Republican primaries will be a lively showcase of political talent — especially compared with the relative coronation taking shape on the Democratic side. But officials also acknowledge just how risky their circumstance is for a party that hasn’t put on a good show in a long time.
At this point, there is no telling how many candidates will elbow their way onto the first debate stage in August. It might even be better to have a series of preliminary debates, each involving a relatively small number of candidates, in order to end up with a “Final Four” in the fashion of the NCAA tournament. Unfortunately, nobody (including us) has figured out how to do that.