You have to give former Florida Governor Jeb Bush some credit for political strategy as he continues his exploratory phase in advance of a likely presidential run.
Bush got out in front of the Republican field early with his announcement of interest in December. And this past week he struck again with an early speech on foreign policy before the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
To a large extent Bush is setting the pace of the campaign at this very early stage and likely will force several of his rivals to speed up their own timetable as they consider a 2016 bid. But it’s also becoming clear that having the Bush family name can be a double-edged sword as he looks ahead to the 2016 presidential campaign.
First and foremost, Bush’s Chicago speech was an opportunity to step out from the shadow of his more famous brother and father, both former presidents.
Bush said that while he loved both of them, “I am my own man and my views are shaped by my own thinking and experiences.” He added, “New circumstances require new approaches.”
But at the same time it has to be noted that Bush seemed rusty as he delivered his speech. He seemed far more comfortable in the question and answer session that followed although there were some awkward moments there as well including his comment that he had “forced” himself to visit Asia four times a year and his reference to Boko Haram in Nigeria as “Boku Haram.”
In terms of policy and substance, Bush seemed to place himself in the mainstream of Republican thinking on foreign policy with a slight bent toward the neo-conservative view that the U.S. needs to be aggressive in confronting threats abroad, especially those like the Islamic State and the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran.
But in terms of style and delivery, the Bush approach will no doubt undergo some tweaking in the months ahead and he will certainly be put to the test, assuming he runs, in the upcoming Republican candidate debates where several candidates may try to make a name for themselves by focusing their fire on him.
Looking ahead, Jeb Bush faces a couple of major challenges if he decides to run.
On domestic policy, he will have to overcome conservative doubts about his more moderate views on immigration and his support for federal education standards known as Common Core. Expect both of these issues to be raised often by Bush’s rivals in the Republican presidential primary and caucus contests.
Critics will try to paint him as out of the conservative mainstream while supporters will argue he represents the best possible candidate the Republican Party could produce in a likely presidential matchup against Democrat and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
But nothing looms over a Bush run for the White House more than the legacy of his brother, former President George W. Bush, and his handling of the Iraq War
President Bush left office in 2009 amid very low public approval ratings in large part because the public turned sour on the war effort. To be fair, the former president’s ratings have improved a bit in recent years, but a majority of voters still says the Iraq War was a mistake.
In his recent foreign policy speech, Bush was keen to put some distance between himself and his brother. He said that “mistakes were made in Iraq, for sure,” including a reliance on faulty intelligence concerning weapons of mass destruction and a failure to restore security in Iraq following the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
Will it be enough to allow him to move past his brother’s Iraq legacy?
But it does signal a start and a recognition within his developing campaign that the strong linkage that voters see between the Bush name and the Iraq War is going to have to be addressed politically in the months ahead.
Some recent state polls by Quinnipiac University polling found that Bush’s family ties could be more of a negative than a positive, at least in this early stage of the race.
Thirty-nine percent of those surveyed in Colorado, for example, said the Bush name would make them less likely to support him. Thirty-five percent said the same thing in similar polls in Iowa and Virginia.
As Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown put it: “Jeb Bush has a family problem. Many voters don’t like him coming from a family of presidents.”
Emulate Bush I or Bush II?
Bush also seems to be trying to strike a balance in the list of foreign policy experts advising him at this early stage of the campaign. The list includes some veterans of his father’s administration, notably former Secretary of State James Baker.
But there are also many veterans of his brother’s administration on the list including one of the controversial architects of President George W. Bush’s Iraq policy, Paul Wolfowitz.
Bush said in Chicago that the so-called Islamic State is “perhaps the greatest security threat” now facing the U.S.
Recent public opinion polls show a majority of Americans favor Congress giving President Obama the authority to use military force against IS. Some surveys also show growing support for the deployment of some U.S. ground troops.
But Bush and other Republican presidential contenders are also aware that the polls show that most Americans still believe the Iraq War launched under President George W. Bush was a mistake.
That’s setting the stage for what may be a tricky balance for Bush ahead--asserting a strong foreign policy vision for the United States while at the same time avoiding the echoes of his brother’s Iraq policy, which many Americans seem determined to avoid repeating.
All of this is likely to be featured in Republican presidential debates thanks in large part to the wild card in the Republican presidential field in terms of foreign policy, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who has said he will likely announce his White House intentions by April.
Paul has separated himself from the rest of the potential field by arguing that the Iraq War was a mistake for the U.S. and adding that there is little appetite to send U.S. troops back into the Middle East to fight IS.
Paul has also broken with conservatives in opposing additional sanctions on Iran over its nuclear development program and in supporting the Obama administration’s new overtures to Cuba.
Paul may find himself out on his own limb during the upcoming presidential debates as most of the other Republican contenders will likely argue for a more robust U.S. role in world affairs.
But Paul’s view on Iraq could pose a challenge for Bush in the debates and primaries as he seeks to win over voters by moving beyond his brother’s Iraq legacy without having to directly repudiate it or those in the Bush White House who supported it.