Republican Senators Aren't Sold on Jeb Bush

Despite his credentials as a governor, fellow GOPers worry about his foreign-policy bonafides.

Wilfredo Lee/AP

The 2016 presidential race began to heat up this week with former Florida Governor Jeb Bush announcing he has decided to “actively explore the possibility of running for president of the United States,” but many of his fellow Republicans in Congress were noticeably lukewarm on his bid for the White House.

Across the Republican political spectrum on national security—from the hawkish trio of John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Kelly Ayotte to the more moderate Rob Portman of Ohio and Tea Party conservative Ted Cruz—a number of senators acknowledged Bush’s shallow experience on defense issues.

Asked what she thinks of a Bush campaign from a national-security perspective, Ayotte answered, “I don’t know. I haven’t heard what his views are on national security yet … maybe he’s stated that, but I haven’t been following him on foreign policy.”

“The bottom line is Ronald Reagan was a governor, too, so there’s a long precedence of governors coming to the White House and being able to make that transition,” she said. “So I don’t think that that, per se, is a disqualifier, but I would want to know what his vision is—particularly on the pressing issues we have around the world right now.”

A recent survey of national-security workers and troops ranked Bush just behind former Massachusetts Governors Mitt Romney among potential picks for 2016, but Bush is better known for his tenure as governor, education work, and famous family than as a prominent figure on foreign policy.

Obama’s announcement Wednesday that he would be restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than 50 years without them gave Bush an early opportunity to demonstrate his foreign policy prowess, given his deep roots in Florida, home to many of the 2 million Cubans and Cuban Americans in the United States. Bush supports the long-standing embargo on the island country some 90 miles away from Florida. (In the 2004 presidential election, Bush’s brother won nearly 80 percent of Florida’s Cuban voters, a majority of whom identify as Republican.) But the politics of the issue have shifted, with recent polls showing most Cuban Americans, especially younger ones, now support relaxing sanctions.

“The Obama administration’s decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba is the latest foreign policy misstep by this president, and another dramatic overreach of his executive authority,” Bush said. “The beneficiaries of President Obama’s ill-advised move will be the heinous Castro brothers who have oppressed the Cuban people for decades.”

Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, who has put down rumors of his own run, said the family ties could help make up for the foreign policy gap on Bush’s resume.

“He’s got a good background on issues domestic and international—he’s got a pretty famous father who I’m sure early in his life taught him a lot about international issues,” Portman said, referring to former President George H.W.Bush, who served as a diplomat in China and also head of the CIA. “I think he’s had a lot of exposure to it over the years.”

McCain, the Republican presidential nominee in 2008, complimented Bush. “I think he was a good governor and he has impressive credentials,” he said. As for how Bush could leverage his state executive experience to the White House, McCain said, “Well, probably the same way his brother did. His brother was governor of Texas, he’s a former governor—he’ll surround himself by good people. Ronald Reagan was a governor, and was very successful because he surrounded himself with good people. The problem with this administration is that it’s a very small number of people that are making these decisions which have been so disastrous.”

“I’ll let the American people judge, but I’m supporting Lindsey Graham, who has a very deep background in national security,” he said. “But I’m not telling the people they’re qualified or disqualified by that issue.”

Graham, who is exploring a bid of his own, had some advice for Bush: “Don’t take the bait. Be who you are.”

“I think there are a lot of people in the donor class that are looking for multiple voices, including on defense,” he said. “Competition is a good thing.”

Cruz is also testing the waters for 2016. “Oh, Jeb Bush is a good man,” Cruz said. “I am a fan of Jeb Bush’s. I think he was a good governor in Florida.”

Hinting at criticism that Bush is too moderate, and at his own desire to run for president, Cruz said: “I think that Republicans should nominate whoever is standing up and leading … whoever’s standing up and leading saying we must restore America’s leadership in the world.

“And I’ll say this, anyone who is thinking of running for president, be they a governor, be they a senator, I would encourage them to stand up and lead. I would be thrilled if a year from now we had a half dozen Republicans all of whom were as Reagan put it, ‘Painting in bold colors not pale pastels.’"