The Big Bush "What If"

What if Jeb Bush had said what his father now says about W., Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Iraq?

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, August 11, 2015. The former Florida governor said the United States must be prepared to send ground troops to confront the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian)

Turn back the clock to mid-May, when a floundering Jeb Bush gave five different answers in five days about his brother’s legacy. What if, rather than tie himself in knots over George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, Jeb had answered honestly and thoughtfully about the mistakes he would not repeat?

What if he had vowed to never over-hype a threat as his brother did? Jeb Bush could have said: “I do worry about some of the rhetoric that was out there—some of it is his, maybe, and some of it the people around him. Hot rhetoric is pretty easy to get headlines, but it doesn’t necessarily solve the diplomatic problem."

What if Jeb Bush had called out one of his brother’s most infamous lines, saying, “You go back to the ‘axis of evil’ and these things, and I think that might be historically proven to be not benefiting anything.”

What if the younger Bush had promised in May to do a better job than his brother in choosing a Cabinet, calling then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld an arrogant jerk and then-Vice President Dick Cheney an empire-building warmonger? Imagine Jeb Bush labeling Cheney an “iron ass,” then adding: “I think the biggest mistake that was made was letting Cheney bring in kind of his own State Department. I think they overdid that. But it’s not Cheney’s fault. It’s the president’s fault. The buck stops there.”

Jeb Bush never said those things. His father did. Each quote comes from a biography of the elder Bush, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bushpreviewed in The New York Times today. (National Journal's Tom DeFrank also covers Meacham's new tome today.)

What if Jeb had said what his father is now saying? Perhaps his campaign would still be circling the drain, the victim of rising populism, celebrity politics, shallow media, and a GOP base roiled by his brother’s budget busting. But I’ve long suspected that his best hope for becoming the third President Bush was by being brutally honest about the first two.

That doesn’t mean throwing his father and brother under the bus; an objective view of presidents 41 and 43 can include many positives. But it would require from Jeb Bush a clear-eyed assessment of how he would be a better bus driver. What went wrong in Iraq and why? Why is U.S. intelligence often so wrong and so easily distorted? When is a brutal dictator better than a dangerous vacuum? Can the United States rebuild nations in its image? Should it? What, if any, freedoms are worth sacrificing for more security? How do we fight Islamic extremists without demonizing a religion?

Jeb Bush could have argued that the person best suited to tackle those and other existential questions is somebody who has watched, up close and personal, as American leaders tried hard to find the answers and failed.

Instead, he tried to distance himself from his brother—never a reasonable goal. In those five days in May, which set the tone for a sour and soulless campaign, Jeb Bush first gave a muddied expression of support for the war. He then called the question hypothetical, reluctantly conceded he would have done things differently in Iraq, and finally said, “I would not have gone into Iraq.”

That’s it. Staggered by the negative reaction to his waffling, Bush has elaborated little on that sentence since May, no doubt hoping he put Iraq in his past. But he hasn’t. He can’t. We can’t. The mistakes his brother’s administration made still haunt this country, and shame on us for leaving lessons on the table.

That goes for people like the elder Bush who still support the Iraq war. Toppling and capturing Saddam Hussein were “proud moments” in U.S. history, the first President Bush told his biographer. “Saddam’s gone, and with him went a lot of brutality and nastiness and awfulness.”

See how this is done? Jeb Bush could have stuck with his first response—defending his brother’s war—but only if he convinced voters that he meant it and, like his father, had learned from it.

George H.W. Bush said of George W. Bush, “The buck stops there.” Unfortunately, when the younger son was faced with a burden of presidential power, Jeb took a pass.