It’s like being stuck in endless sequels to the movie Taken. A carefree Republican presidential candidate heads to Europe. The voyage promises to be fun and low-key—a chance to learn and have a good time—but then everything suddenly spins out of control. Worst of all, there’s no Liam Neeson around to save them—just a pack of reporters eager to see them falter.
That’s the scenario Jeb Bush is looking to avoid as he embarks on a tour of Central and Eastern Europe, kicking off with a speech on Tuesday in Germany.
Consider the fate of some predecessors. In February, Chris Christie went to London to burnish his foreign-policy credentials and show his seriousness. The result was what Politico described as a “weeklong train wreck”:
The Republican governor started a trip to London by bobbling a question about whether measles vaccinations should be mandatory. The next day he snapped at a reporter who tried to ask him about foreign policy. He faced questions about a new federal investigation into his administration and came under scrutiny for his taste in luxurious travel.
Scott Walker had a rough run of it too. Because he, like Christie, is a governor, there’s a desire to show that he knows how to carry himself abroad. Instead, Walker punted over and over again, declining to answer a series of questions during an appearance at Chatham House, a London think-tank. One reason was the traditional warning that “politics stops at water’s edge”—the idea that politicians shouldn’t criticize American policy while overseas, increasingly honored in the breach. But that didn’t explain why he couldn’t lay out a general foreign-policy vision—or say whether he believed in evolution.
When Bobby Jindal went to the U.K., he claimed that there were areas of Britain that the government had effectively ceded to radical Muslims. Unsurprisingly, that turned out not be true; more surprisingly, he refused to concede that there was no evidence for his claim.
And then there was Mitt Romney, whose 2008 tour through the continent was really more like Spinal Tap, with marginally fewer deceased percussionists. At the start of the trip, he managed to alienate even the British, America’s closest and most tolerant allies, by questioning their preparation for the London Olympics. Next, he was roundly attacked for comments on Palestinian culture he made while in Israel. In Poland, he met with Lech Walesa, only to be attacked by Solidarity, the union Walesa once led. “What about your gaffes?” a Washington Post reporter memorably shouted at Romney. He didn’t reply—but then what was there to say that hadn’t already been said?
It’s enough that CNN referred to “the curse of London.” Not everyone stumbles quite so badly—you’re just not as likely to hear about it. Marco Rubio visited, too, though back in December 2013, before he was a candidate for president. That visit was received fairly quietly, but generally politely. (Rand Paul also visited London, but, uh, not that one.)
One big danger in the trip is embedded in the purpose. The goal is less to make concrete connections overseas—though that’s useful—than to imbue a candidate with gravitas, especially if he’s a governor without much foreign-policy experience. But once a politician gets there, reporters are eager to ask questions about the trip and what they think about the world. Perhaps the smartest course for a candidate is to offer solid but anodyne answers and try to make few waves. (According to this rubric, Walker simply erred in being too cautious.)
Not every trip is so fraught—consider the rapturous welcome Barack Obama received when he delivered a speech in Berlin in July 2008. But Obama had several advantages. For one, he’d traveled abroad a fair amount and was a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, so he had less to prove.
For another, his politics made him much more welcome. That’s a challenge for every Republican who travels across the Atlantic—in most of Europe, the GOP is simply far to the right on most issues, so Republicans find fewer natural allies. Even in Britain, where the Conservative Party is in power, the Tories are to the left of the Republican Party, and Prime Minister David Cameron is unusually close to President Obama. On a continent where a strong social safety net is a given, a party that has railed against it for decades faces an uphill battle. Hawkish foreign-policy stands also don’t go over so well. (Already, European foreign ministers are thought be more or less tacitly supporting Hillary Clinton.)
Obama had one other big advantage when he went to Germany: His last name wasn’t Bush. George W. Bush was immensely unpopular with Europeans and in particular with Germans, and the prospect of a new American leader excited them. Needless to say, that remains a challenge for Jeb Bush, George’s little brother. The New York Times went out into the streets of the German capital and found that Berliners are skeptical of the Bush name—more, even, than Americans are. “The alarm bells ring,” one young German said.
One way to handle that risk is simply not to worry too much about the way the Germans take it. As McKay Coppins reports, Bush seems to be speaking to two audiences by using his trip to rail against Vladimir Putin. That telegraphs to Eastern European nations that he’d be on their side, and it positions him as a Russia hawk within the Republican primary field.
That message was met politely by an audience of roughly 1,000 in Germany—just a hair short of the 200,000 who came out for Obama (albeit at a later stage in the campaign). Bush’s next task: Get through the next four days while avoiding the traps that snared so many of his Republican rivals.