Jeb Bush's Polish Problem

jeb bush

We are noticing a disturbing trend in the nascient days of the Jeb Bush campaign – the trend being that the candidate gets embarrassingly caught flat footed by questions that he should have without a doubt seen coming. The first of these instances came during the ongoing negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal, when Iran was basically the top news item on every news story. Bush was asked, essentially, whether he thought the United States should support regime change in Iran. He answered, somewhat embarrassingly, “I don’t know; let me get back to you on that.”

The second instance happened late last week when Bush was asked, essentially, whether he would have supported going into Iraq even knowing what we know now. This is a question that any reasonable person with the last name “Bush” should have seen coming ten thousand miles away. Further, it is political suicide to answer this question “yes” as something like 85% of independents (and over 50% of Republicans) disagree. It is especially dangerous for Jeb to answer this question “yes” because his primary job over the next 12 months is to convince voters that he would not repeat the mistakes of his brother, of which the Iraq invasion is widely considered to be #1 (fair or not).

That doesn’t mean that Jeb had to answer “no.” There are plenty of ways to avoid the question altogether, including pointing out the unfairness of the question itself and that Presidents don’t get to make decisions with the benefit of hindsight. But just a flat out “yes” including the comment about Hillary was just not a defensible answer, politically. In fact, it seems somewhat obvious that Bush may have just misheard the question:

Asked by conservative commentator Sean Hannity whether he would have made a different decision than his brother, George W. Bush, to invade Iraq, Jeb Bush said he would have. But, he added, leaving room for interpretation: “I don’t know what that decision would have been. That’s a hypothetical.”
Bush taped the interview with Hannity in the aftermath of another interview, with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, which aired Monday but was teased throughout the weekend, wherein Bush seemed to suggest that he would have invaded Iraq even in hindsight.

* * *

“Knowing what we know now, clearly there were mistakes as it related to faulty intelligence in the lead-up to the war, and the lack of focus on security,” Bush said. “My brother’s admitted this, and we have to learn from that.”

The problem with this response is that Bush allowed the “incorrect” one to percolate over an entire weekend before issuing any sort of clarification about what he meant and how it came to be that he answered the question wrong. This is not 1980 or even 2000 – allowing information to gel for that long in the public’s consciousness can be fatal, especially if that information does not accurately convey the candidate’s views, especially on an issue as toxic as this.

If this were any other candidate, this kind of tendency to stumble with the media could be written off as growing pains. I myself did a lot of the same with Scott Walker. But two things separate Bush’s media struggles from Walker’s.

First, Bush is stumbling over substantive questions. Walker offered some awkward answers to questions that just do not matter – whether he believes in evolution, whether Obama loves America. Bush, on the other hand, has had two embarrassing gaffes with questions that shed meaningful light on what his decision making process as President would be like – to wit, whether he thinks regime change in Iran is a good idea and whether he would have invaded Iraq.

Second, having media savvy and polish is the entire raison d’etre of the Bush candidacy. The whole reason Bush is being foisted upon us as the obvious choice by the moneyed class is that he is supposed to be the candidate who will not embarrass himself and the entire party by making rookie mistakes on the campaign trail.

In other words, in this primary, he is the only candidate who can’t get away with several months of amateur hour before he finally hits his media stride. His main selling point is that he is media ready.

The early returns just don’t show that he’s matching his ad copy so far.