There’s always been one immutable dilemma at the heart of Jeb Bush’s presidential aspirations — his connection to America’s disastrous 43rd president.
That problem was on stark display this week, when Jeb tried, without success, to answer the question of whether, given what we know today, he would have made the same decision his brother did about going to war in Iraq. Initially he said he would have, then, via a political ally, he claimed he misunderstood the question. Finally he did a full reversal on Thursday and said, "Knowing what we know now . . . I would not have engaged — I would not have gone into Iraq."
The vultures in the GOP and the media immediately swooped in. Jeb was embarrassingly unprepared for a question that he should have known was coming. Others speculated that he is nothing more than an unreconstructed neoconservative war hawk.
But the real explanation may be quite simpler, a tad noble and actually more damaging — he didn't want to throw his brother under the bus.
"I love my brother," said Jeb at the outset of his speech to the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa. "He is a man of integrity, courage, and honor, and during incredibly challenging times he kept us safe." Bush's comments were unscripted and, tellingly, were not included in his remarks distributed to reporters. It was pretty much the only positive reference to the former president at the entire four-day event.
While this year Jeb has gone to great lengths to say he is his own man on foreign policy, he has quite ostentatiously avoided any direct — or even indirect — criticism of his brother's policies. In February, he made clear "there were mistakes in Iraq for sure," yet he also called W.'s decision to surge troops to Iraq in 2007 "one of the most heroic acts of courage politically that any president's done."
The closest he's come to attacking his brother is joking that he's "younger" and "better looking" than W.
By all accounts Jeb and his brother are not close. Still, blood runs thick and Jeb appears disinclined to go after his brother to advance his political career. If that is actually the case, it's a position worthy of praise.
The problem, of course, is Jeb's greatest political liability is voter fear that he would represent a third Bush term in office. He has the highest unfavorability rating (48 percent) of any Republican presidential office-seeker. A recent CBS poll found that 49 percent of independents wouldn't consider voting for him (the same poll recorded a favorability rating of 30 percent for George W). These numbers are almost certainly a reflection of last name recognition — and not in a good way.
To criticize W. does not come without risks. The former president remains popular among Republicans and, in particular, evangelical voters. However, it seems almost bizarre to be so reluctant to criticize a conflict that is about as popular as Ebola. It's not as if Republicans — or anyone, for that matter — looks back fondly on the Iraq war. But Jeb to do so would mean rather directly criticizing his brother.
The fact that Jeb had to be practically dragged into expressing a view held by an overwhelming number of Americans is telling, and also potentially fatal. Unless he is able to separate himself from the failed policies of his namesake, winning the presidency will be close to impossible.
Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.