Whatever it portends for Jeb Bush’s struggling 2016 White House bid, George W. Bush’s return to the campaign trail is bad news for the Republican Party.
The former president and former Florida governor headlined a joint rally Monday in South Carolina. The state helped George H.W. Bush finish off Bob Dole in 1988 and set Bush 43 on his path to the nomination after a disappointing loss in New Hampshire in 2000. Jeb is hoping the third time’s a charm.
While George W. Bush remains a popular and well-respected figure among rank-and-file Republicans, especially in South Carolina, to the broader electorate he is a symbol of GOP failure.
The war in Iraq undermined decades of public confidence in Republican handling of foreign policy that stretched from Ronald Reagan winning the Cold War to the beginning of the war on terror under Dubya’s watch.
Donald Trump went too far in his attack on George W. Bush during Saturday night’s debate in South Carolina, which will likely add to the temptation to hug the 43rd president all the tighter in the run-up to the primary. He was wrong to personalize the issue and his comments sounded too much like the “Bush lied, people died” line associated with the left.
But Trump is right that the Iraq war was a “big, fat mistake” and most voters agree. That’s why Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio were forced to do somersaults on whether they would have ordered the invasion knowing what we know now, ultimately conceding it was a mistake.
The Iraq war cost more than $1 trillion, paid for on a credit card, left behind a country that can only be held together by still more American blood and treasure, and created a power vacuum that was filled by jihadists and Iran, all to disarm Saddam Hussein of weapons that he did not have or were not in working order.
A war that was intended to reduce radical Islam’s power to attack Americans and create an Iraq that is a reliable ally in the war on terror instead was followed by the rise of ISIS and an increase in Iranian influence in Baghdad.
Iraq isn’t the only reason Republicans shouldn’t want their next nominee to be Bush 2.0. The tea party originally arose to protest his increases in federal spending, not Barack Obama’s. Conservatives decided his “compassionate conservatism,” like liberalism, measured compassion too much by the growth of government.
Republicans’ distrust of their party on immigration also began with President Bush, not John McCain or even Rubio. His administration backed several amnesty proposals during his second term, all of which were rejected by conservatives in the House.
But the Iraq war isn’t just a historical question. Hillary Clinton remains the likeliest Democratic nominee. She voted for the war. As secretary of state, she proved she learned nothing from it by pushing for regime change in Libya. That intervention also created a power vacuum that was exploited by ISIS and calls for the U.S. to return to hold that country together.
Republicans won’t be able to whole-heartedly campaign against Clinton’s foreign-policy failures with a nominee too tied to George W. Bush. Some candidates for the GOP nomination want to repeat the mistakes of Iraq and Libya by pushing for regime change in Syria. And it will be difficult to gain public support for any plan to defeat ISIS if voters think the result will be another Iraq war.
Many Republicans understand this. Two of the candidates doing the best in the 2016 race, the winners of the first two states to vote, are also the two top-tier Republicans who sound the least like George W. Bush on foreign policy. We all know Trump’s thoughts on Iraq, but Ted Cruz has also been critical of the foreign policy associated with it and has spoken out against expensive nation-building exercises.
Even Jeb Bush might be erring by leaning so much on his family ties. Yes, his last name helped raise $100 million. But it undermines his claim to be his “own man.” And when you talk to Republican voters, many say they like the former governor but worry that a third Bush is one too many.
Let the Democrats restore the Clintons and be the party of dynasty, no-win wars for regime change and throwbacks to bygone political eras. Republicans have an opportunity to turn the page in 2016 and should look forward rather than backward.