The presidential campaign has already cycled through some unexpected litmus-test questions for the large Republican field, on issues ranging from Iran to vaccinations to the right to discriminate in Indiana. This week, however, brought the easiest question in the world: if you knew in 2003 what we know now, would you have launched the war in Iraq?
So far this week, Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul all answered the question in roughly the same way: of course, not.
And then there’s Jeb Bush.
On Monday, the former Florida governor said he would’ve invaded Iraq in 2003, even if he knew then what he knows now. On Tuesday, the unannounced Republican candidate changed direction, saying he doesn’t know what he would have done and he “interpreted the question wrong” the day before. Yesterday, as msnbc’s Carrie Dann reported, Jeb Bush tried to clarify his clarification.
Jeb Bush says that he does not want to engage in “hypotheticals” about the Iraq war because it is a “disservice” to individuals who lost their lives during the conflict. […]“If we’re going to get back into hypotheticals, I think it does a disservice to a lot of people who sacrificed a lot,” Bush said.
Whether he realizes it not, Bush is doing real damage to his presidential prospects with rhetoric like this.
To suggest that dodging easy, obvious questions is some kind of patriotic exercise, intended to honor American troops, is so patently ridiculous that Bush ought to be embarrassed. Answers like these were knee-jerk reactions throughout much of the Bush/Cheney era, and the fact that the former governor is reading from the same script reinforces the worst fears about his candidacy.
For that matter, if a candidate does “disservice” to the troops by talking about the decisions that led to the Iraq war, why did Jeb Bush just come up with this answer now? He was willing to answer the question on Monday and Tuesday, but on Wednesday the same issue is somehow irresponsible?
But stepping back to consider the broader context, the New York Times’ Gail Collins raises an important point today: “As a presidential hopeful, Bush’s most attractive feature was an aura of competence. Extremely boring competence, perhaps. Still, an apparent ability to get through the day without demonstrating truly scary ineptitude.”
That impression is now gone. The “aura” has disappeared. The emerging picture is that of a failed president’s brother, who’s forgotten how to run a campaign, and who’s flubbing obvious questions he’s had literally years to prepare for.
I suspect Bush and his campaign operation will take some solace in the fact that most Americans aren’t yet engaged in the 2016 presidential race and much of the country probably won’t hear about this fiasco. There’s some truth to that. But this is the stage of the campaign in which candidates make a lasting impression, developing a reputation that tends to stick.
With that in mind, if the Republican establishment isn’t nervous about their ostensible frontrunner after this week, it’s just not paying close enough attention.