On Foreign Policy, Republicans Remain the Party of Bush

Jeb Bush is trying to forge his own political identity, even as he agrees with his brother's core foreign policy principles.

The Bush family at the Ryder Cup in 1999. (National Journal)

Jeb Bush has received outsized scrutiny for the makeup of his large team of foreign policy advisers, as observers try to cull any clues about his thinking on international affairs. But by focusing on the bold-faced names, pundits are missing the point. The reality is that the modern Republican Party is a fundamentally hawkish institution, and if he's elected president, Jeb will likely favor a much more assertive American role in the world than President Obama does. And so will every other Republican running, with the likely exception of Rand Paul.

Bush said as much in his speech at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He called the Obama administration "inconsistent and indecisive." He said a president's tough talk against our enemies "need to be backed up by the greatest military force in the world." He mocked the civil-libertarian opposition to NSA programs to gather intelligence about terrorist threats. And he famously tagged his views as "liberty diplomacy"—a clever rebranding of his brother's freedom agenda and promotion of democracy worldwide.

In short, Jeb Bush was running on his brother's foreign policy, something that became untenable when the American public grew weary of the Iraq War. But the reality is that George W. Bush's foreign policy and national security views have remained the norm within the GOP. Jeb may have included some less-interventionist advisers to keep his critics guessing—such as his father's 84-year-old secretary of State, James Baker—but his speech was nearly indistinguishable from one that George W. would deliver.

That's not a bad thing, politically speaking. Obama's struggles to defeat the Islamic State, as well as the growing list of threats emerging in the Middle East, have made foreign policy the Democrats' biggest vulnerability heading into 2016. Public opinion on America's role in the world has been shifting at warp speed since the horrific series of ISIS beheadings and ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks that have occurred across the globe over the past year.

For the first time in Obama's presidency, a new CBS/New York Times poll found that a strong majority of voters (57 percent) support the United States sending in ground troops to Iraq and Syria to challenge ISIS—a 10-point jump since last October. A whopping 72 percent of Republicans support such a decision, and even a bare 50 percent majority of Democrats now support military engagement. At the same time, Obama's approval rating on foreign policy is hitting new lows, stunting his overall approval rating despite the improved economy.

The next presidential election is shaping up to be a rare contest where national security is a leading issue—and, as in 2004, the public is again in a hawkish mood. And if the trends continue, supporting an assertive foreign policy won't be an asset with just conservative Republicans but also with the overall electorate.

It shouldn't be a surprise that George W. Bush's foreign policy legacy is lasting. The 9/11 terrorist attacks reshaped Republicans into a bunch of dedicated hawks. Even when the politics suggested the public's war-weariness, the party largely stuck together against the changed public opinion, with only a few defections.

Nearly all of the 2008 presidential candidates supported the war in Iraq, even though it was deeply unpopular—and though keeping some distance was in their political interest. During the congressional debate over whether to authorize force against Syria, the Obama White House found that many of its biggest defenders were Republicans. Despite the GOP's long-standing antipathy toward the president, it has found the most common ground with him when Obama has taken forceful action—whether it was (temporarily) increasing the troop presence in Afghanistan or enforcing his own red line on Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons against his own people.

Jeb Bush's long-term political challenge stems less from his brother's foreign policy vision, and more from W.'s original decision to invade Iraq. Despite the public's growing hawkishness, polls have shown no corresponding change in the view that the war was a mistake. In his speech, Jeb Bush gave his brother credit for his politically risky decision to order the troop surge to stabilize Iraq, but that's now a distant memory, given that country's current chaos.

It would be a bitter irony if the American people ended up endorsing the George W. Bush approach to terrorism, even as they rejected the legacy of the former president's record on Iraq. That's clearly weighing on Jeb Bush as he tries to forge his own political identity without abandoning the core foreign policy principles that his brother laid out.