WASHINGTON -- The only unexpected thing about the question on the Iraq war was that it appeared to come as a surprise to Jeb Bush. The likely U.S. presidential candidate in 2016 -- and, in fact, any onlooker -- could have predicted that he’d be asked about his brother George W. Bush’s decision to launch a pre-emptive war. But the former Florida governor’s fumbling response succeeded only in keeping the issue going.
First, a college student at a town-hall meeting told Jeb Bush that by invading Iraq, former President Bush had essentially created the Islamic State group. Answering questions posed by reporters, Jeb Bush defended his brother, saying he would have made the same decision. Then he reversed himself, saying he had initially misunderstood the question and that, with the benefit of hindsight, he would not have gone into Iraq.
In an election cycle with two leading candidates who count former presidents among their close family members, there are bound to be questions about decisions made by previous administrations. Hillary Clinton has already been forced to distance herself from policies established by her husband Bill Clinton’s administration. She will also have to walk a delicate line over decisions made by Barack Obama’s administration, which she served as secretary of state for four years.
Jeb Bush has attempted to put some space between himself and the previous Bush presidents. “I love my father and my brother. I admire their service to the nation and the difficult decisions they had to make. But I am my own man -- and my views are shaped by my own thinking and own experiences,” he said in February.
But his stumble over the Iraq issue -- he further complicated matters by reportedly telling donors that he turns to his brother for his expertise on the Middle East -- made it clear that the potential Republican presidential candidate needs some prep sessions, ASAP.
Here are the four top areas where Bush needs to make sure he has a response at the ready.
The Iraq War
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may be the defining legacy of George W. Bush’s administration. Public opinion has shifted. A Gallup poll in 2014 found that 57 percent of those surveyed now think the Iraq War was a mistake, compared with only 39 percent who do not. The rise of the Islamic State group means that Republican hopefuls (and Hillary Clinton) will inevitably be asked about the wisdom of the war, about Middle East politics, and when Americans should use diplomacy or military action. Jeb Bush needs to figure out his reply -- and stick to it.
Russia And Vladimir Putin
For most of George W. Bush’s time in the White House, his counterpart in Russia was Vladimir Putin. “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy, and we had a very good dialogue,” Bush said in 2001, according to BBC News. “I was able to get a sense of his soul. He’s a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country, and I appreciate very much the frank dialogue, and that’s the beginning of a very constructive relationship.”
But with Putin’s increasingly aggressive nationalism and his dispute with Ukraine, Republicans now hammer Obama for being weak in his dealings with the Russian leader. If Jeb Bush can’t put distance between himself and his brother’s soulful view of Putin, he’ll be vulnerable to attacks from GOP hawks.
This year will mark the 10-year anniversary of the storm, driving an immense amount of coverage on the progress of rebuilding in New Orleans, as well as retrospective looks at how the storm was handled at the time. President Bush’s widely criticized response to the disaster -- from his praise of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s then-Director Michael Brown to the bad-optics photograph of his glancing down at the destruction from an airplane window -- puts pressure on Jeb Bush to make the case that his administration would be significantly more competent.
He’ll have to find a way to reassure voters that he’s not vulnerable to a so-called Katrina (which has become media shorthand for a botched response to any U.S. natural disaster, including nonweather events), without seeming either disloyal or disrespectful of his brother’s performance.
No Child Left Behind
One of George W. Bush’s signature domestic legislative accomplishments was the education-focused No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). At the time, it was a bipartisan victory. The now-deceased Democratic U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts took the lead in writing and lobbying for the legislation.
Now the law is roundly hated by legislators and education activists in both parties. Republicans in the House of Representatives tried to rewrite it this year and couldn’t get even their own members to agree on changes.
Jeb Bush is a staunch supporter of Common Core, an alternative to NCLB that was created by the states -- but which, after being endorsed by the Obama administration, became anathema to GOP conservatives. Bush has made it clear he believes he can win the Republican primaries even with his position on Common Core, but he’d be smart to be prepared to defend his education policies -- and his brother’s.