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November 22nd, 2017

Insight

GOP Iraq battle shines new spotlight on Jeb Bush weakness

Byron York

By Byron York

Published Feb. 17, 2016

It's entirely reasonable to say the war in Iraq was a disaster. Maybe you disagree, or maybe you think that's too harsh, but it's an arguable proposition.

To Jeb Bush, though, it's an attack on his family, and therefore out of bounds.

When Donald Trump attacked the war as a "big fat mistake" during the recent debate in South Carolina, and went on to say that "they" -- the George W. Bush administration -- lied about weapons of mass destruction, Jeb took it personally.

"I am sick and tired of him going after my family," Bush said as Trump stood nearby.

The Iraq war affected a lot of Americans. More than 1 million U.S. military men and women served in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. A total of 4,495 died, while 32,223 were wounded. Their families were affected. Their communities were affected. And, of course, all Americans have an interest in a war's success and the furtherance of U.S. national interest.

In other words, the effects of the Iraq war extend far beyond the confines of the Bush family. But Jeb Bush, in public at least, takes an attack on the war as an attack on his mom and his dad and his brother. When Trump struck, here is what Bush said in response:

"I am sick and tired of him going after my family. My dad is the greatest man alive, in my mind. And while Donald Trump was building a reality TV show, my brother was building a security apparatus to keep us safe. And I'm proud of what he did. And (Trump) has had the gall to go after my mother. Look, I won the lottery when I was born 63 years ago, looked up, and I saw my mom. My mom is the strongest woman I know."

Some of that is simply non sequitur -- one man says the war was a mistake, and the other answers that his mother is a great woman. But Bush's words, more than anything, showed that he is unable to separate momentous national events, or at least this particular momentous national event, from his own familial bonds.

A few seconds later, Marco Rubio, whose father and brother were not president of the United States, gave a more concise and focused defense of the George W. Bush administration than Jeb did.

And the next day, Jeb did it again. His campaign sent out an email headlined "Donald crossed a line." Did he mean Trump had wrongly attacked the war? No, he meant Trump had attacked his family:

"Friend -- Last night, Donald Trump came after my family yet again. But I told him I was sick and tired of it, and put him in his place.

"But even I was surprised to hear him attack my brother, George W. Bush, over 9/11.

"Donald showed once more he cannot be the Republican Party's nominee.

"Here is the truth: George kept us safe."

As the son and brother of presidents, Bush's very presence in the Republican race is extraordinary. He began the campaign with a dynastic problem, noted by his mother, who, in 2013, praised Jeb's qualifications but said of the 2016 race, "There are other people out there that are very qualified, and we've had enough Bushes."

As the race has progressed, the many difficulties of the Bush campaign drew attention away from the dynastic problem. But it is still there.

And Bush's family ties apparently make it difficult, if not impossible, for Jeb to grapple with a question like the war in Iraq, which, given the situation with ISIS, Syria and the rest of the Middle East, remains a serious issue in the presidential campaign.

What's odd is that George W. Bush, who started the Iraq war, has delved deeply and painfully into its origin and impact. "The reality was that I had sent American troops into combat based in large part on intelligence that proved false," W wrote in his memoir. "I had a sickening feeling every time I thought about it. I still do."

In addition, George W. Bush has spent thousands of hours with veterans and military families. And he has not tried to shield himself when some are angry.

In her own book, former White House press secretary Dana Perino told the story of accompanying Bush, as president, to a military hospital, where he met a grief-stricken woman whose son was dying of war wounds:

"She yelled at the president, wanting to know why it was her child and not his who lay in that hospital bed.

"Her husband tried to calm her and I noticed the president wasn't in a hurry to leave -- he tried offering comfort but then just stood and took it, like he expected and needed to hear the anguish, to try to soak up some of her suffering if he could."

On the trip back to the White House, the presidential entourage was silent, until Bush finally said, "That mama sure was mad at me. And I don't blame her a bit."

But that's George W. Bush. Jeb Bush certainly knows the intensity of the feelings involved -- he has sometimes talked of, as governor of Florida, comforting the families of Floridians killed in Iraq. But in this campaign, Jeb repels attacks on the war as assaults on family.

The legacy of Iraq is difficult. Republicans have mostly refrained from debating it amongst themselves, at least in public. But Trump has changed that. And in the process he has revealed the deepest flaws in Jeb Bush's presidential candidacy.

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