Sometimes politicians do things so inexplicable that it makes you wonder, well, just what the heck are they thinking?
Witness Jeb Bush's answers over the course of this week when asked whether, knowing what we know now, he would have authorized the war in Iraq begun by his brother, former president George W. Bush.
Seemingly embarking on a bit of necessary cleanup duty Tuesday, Jeb called into Sean Hannity's radio show to clarify that, yes, he had misunderstood the question. Hannity offered Jeb a second chance to get it right, asking him the same question the former Florida governor had misunderstood when Kelly asked it. "I don’t know what that decision would have been," Bush responded. "That’s a hypothetical.”
Then came Wednesday and a town hall in Reno, Nev., where Jeb was again asked the Iraq question. This time he went with: "So, going back in time and talking about hypotheticals -- what would have happened, what could have happened, I think, does a disservice for [the men and women who served in the conflict]."
And finally, later on that same day in a press gaggle after the town hall, Jeb offered this one up: "Of course, given the power of looking back and having that -- of course anybody would have made different decisions."
So, what exactly is Jeb's position on Iraq? And how can someone as able as Jeb Bush -- he was a two-term governor of a giant state, after all -- end a week like this one with it still not totally clear how he would have handled Iraq knowing then what we know now?
(Editor's note: Jeb, on Thursday afternoon, finally made it clear; "Knowing what we know now...I would not have gone into Iraq," Bush said at a campaign stop in Tempe.)
Color me baffled -- especially because this isn't exactly the sort of "gotcha" question that politicians usually blanch at and/or flub. Remember that:
1. Jeb HAD to know this question was coming at some point during the campaign. It is literally the SINGLE MOST OBVIOUS question to ask him, given that his brother prosecuted the war in Iraq and that the main reason the war was begun -- concerns about weapons of mass destruction -- has been proven to be false. HOW -- and I know I am using all caps a lot but I am amazed at all of this -- do you not have a really well-rehearsed answer on what you would have done in Iraq knowing what we know now about WMD? Like, that is candidate 101 for any candidate -- much less one who is George W. Bush's younger brother.
2. There's only one right answer to the question given how the American public views the war in Iraq. And that answer is "No, knowing what we know now, I would not have authorized the war." It's the answer Republicans hoping to be the "not Jeb" in the race immediately gave in the aftermath of his struggles to get it right, seeking to drive the contrast between themselves and the former Florida governor for undecided GOP voters. And while George W. hasn't totally abandoned his belief in the rightness of the war, he did acknowledge in his memoir that "there are things we got wrong in Iraq." There is space for Jeb to both get this right politically and do right by his brother.
What's the lingering effect (if any) of Bush's awful week on Iraq? Hard to say, specifically, but I do think it makes plain why running as a "Bush" is so hard for Jeb -- even in a Republican primary. It's not just that people tend to say that they don't want any more dynasties. It's that Jeb will have to find answers -- good ones, preferably -- for the controversial things his brother did in office. While every Republican in the race will have to deal with the specter of George W., no one has one-tenth of the challenge in doing so that Jeb does.
If this week is any indication, Jeb still has lots of work to do on that front.