A while back, my friend and boss, Tucker Carlson, refused to condemn his brother for some inappropriate comments that were accidentally made public. “You know what, if my brother committed a mass murder, I would not criticize him in public,” Carlson later explained. “He’s my brother. Period. Under no circumstances will I criticize my family in public—ever. That’s the rule, and I’m not breaking it.”
As an only child, I can’t fully identify with this fraternal loyalty. But I respect the hell out of it. It’s a dangerous world, and if your brother doesn’t have your back, who will? But there are consequences to adhering to this sort of code. And right now, Jeb Bush is finding out that his reluctance to publicly criticize and break with his brother could potentially doom his presidential bid.
On Thursday he finally pulled the trigger and stated the obvious: No, he now says, he wouldn’t have invaded Iraq given what we know now. It was an important moment in his campaign. It was also flat-footed—his fourth answer to the question in a week—and probably didn’t go far enough. But it had to be said.
In the last 48 hours or so, we’ve seen Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, and John Kasich all say that—knowing what we know now—the war was a mistake. And, of course, Rand Paul has been pushing this line all along (without need of the “knowing what we know now” caveat). Jeb lagged far behind the rest of the field on what should have been an easy question.
But of course—because the man who ordered the invasion was his brother—Jeb finds himself in a unique situation. And so, he spent several news cycles failing to adequately answer a serous question about what might be the most important foreign policy decision of the early 21st century.
Jeb’s “I’m my own man” act was, of course, never going to fly. Not without proof. And it wouldn’t have flown for Dubya, either, even though his father—the last Republican president (you always have to distance yourself from the last guy)—wasn’t as much of an albatross in 2000 as W. is today. In fact, a big part of the reason Dubya succeeded is that he broke with his dad, who still had a toxic reputation on the right, what with the tax hike and the disdain for “voodoo economics” and the losing to Bill Clinton.
In all theater, including politics, the first rule is Show, don’t tell. And George W. Bush didn’t just tell us he was different; he showed us he was different. He spoke differently. He wasn’t a WASP from the Northeast; he was a born-again evangelical from Texas. “There is a higher father that I appeal to,” he once told Bob Woodward. Poppy made his bones in the GOP as a pro-choice moderate, an ally of Nixon and Ford; George W. ran as the personification of the religious right.
And guess what? It worked. George W. Bush managed to get elected and, unlike his dad, re-elected. In one fell swoop, Dubya avenged his father’s defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton—by simultaneously disowning his father. Jeb’s reluctance to make a similar break with his brother’s legacy cost him dearly this week, and despite his comments on Thursday, it will dog him for months.
Granted, what Dubya pulled off was a difficult trick. Despite sending the aforementioned signals to everyone that he would be more like Reagan than his own old man, he never completely threw Poppy under the bus. In fact, it was pretty clear that he loved his dad, even as he surrounded himself with Poppy’s old enemies like Don Rumsfeld. And then, just as he would do what his dad couldn’t do electorally, he would also finish the job in Baghdad.
Not to play Maureen Dowd pop psychologist here, but how much of the last few decades can be explained by the psychological need to avenge George H.W. Bush’s presidency—not by means of revisionist history, but by means of reliving it … getting it right this time?
The irony, of course, is that 41 did a good job of winding down the Cold War and effectively neutering Saddam. As you’ll recall, H.W. Bush managed to assemble an impressive coalition, and refused to get bogged down in some quagmire. But no good deed goes unpunished. He wins a war, and some lecherous hillbilly from Arkansas takes his job? And to add insult to injury, Saddam tried to have Poppy assassinated.
So here you have this interesting psychology whereby George W. Bush is willing to publicly distance himself from dear old dad, do things dad wouldn’t approve of, in order to avenge him. This would be fascinating enough, were it not for John Ellis Bush.
Another weird twist to this story is that Jeb, always the favorite son, is probably more like 41 than 43 in temperament and outlook. And maybe that means that, had Jeb been elected president in 2000, instead of his brother, he wouldn’t have gotten us involved in the Iraq War, while he simultaneously lacks the killer instinct to tell us that. Maybe—just as 41 had the governing skills, but lacked the political instincts that might have made him a two-term president—Jeb Bush is just too decent a guy to get elected.
But here’s the bottom line: Jeb has to really distance himself from his brother, albeit in some respectable manner, if he wants to be president. He needs to show us how he’s different, what he’d do differently, and where he and his brother diverge on issues both foreign and domestic. Where does he stand on the bailouts, the massive growth in government spending, the Medicare expansion, and all the other facets of the Bush presidency that still anger conservatives? He has to make a break with all that if he wants to make it to the nomination and, ultimately, the White House.
This insanely difficult choice—whether to stay with his brother or leave him behind—will largely define Jeb’s candidacy. The Bushes have always prized loyalty, but for Jeb, absolute loyalty to his brother—and winning the presidency—might be mutually exclusive. Some presidents would run over their own mother if that’s what it takes to win an election. What is Jeb willing to say about his brother’s policies—if push comes to shove?