Hillary Clinton is sprinting away from Bill. In the short month since she’s been an official candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, she’s renounced his criminal justice policies—pledging an end to the “era of mass incarceration” her husband helped usher—and adopted a careful skepticism on free trade, versus the enthusiasm of the Clinton administration. She hasn’t abandoned the former president—Bill will almost certainly campaign for Hillary—but she’s begun to put space between her career and his legacy.
The other dynastic candidate in the presidential race, Jeb Bush, is moving in the opposite direction. “If you want to know who I listen to for advice, it’s him,” said Bush of his brother, President George W. Bush. In this instance, speaking to a group of Manhattan financiers, he was referencing his proposed policy toward Israel. But it’s clear Jeb has taken sibling wisdom on a variety of topics. Not only does he sound like his brother on immigration—he wants a path to “earned legal status” for 11 million unauthorized immigrants—but he’s on board with his foreign policy as well. When asked if, “knowing what we know now,” he would have authorized the invasion of Iraq, Jeb Bush said yes. “I would have,” he told Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, “and so would have Hillary Clinton,” he added.
Because the question was whether Bush would go to war with today’s information—as opposed to 2002’s intelligence—this wasn’t really an answer. Clinton’s vote to authorize the war with the information she had doesn’t mean she would do the same with the information she now has (though, someone should ask). But that’s secondary to the astonishing fact that Bush has embraced the most disastrous choice of his brother’s administration.
To that point, Kelly also asked if Bush thought the war was a mistake. And here, his reply was even more interesting. “In retrospect,” Bush said, “the intelligence that everybody saw, that the world saw, not just the United States, was faulty. And in retrospect, once we invaded and took out Saddam Hussein, we didn’t focus on security first, and the Iraqis, in this incredibly insecure environment turned on the United States military because there was no security for themselves and their families. By the way, guess who thinks that those mistakes took place, as well? George W. Bush. So, news flash to the world, if they’re trying to find places where there’s big space between me and my brother, this might not be one of those.”
Either Bush is dodging the question—and looking for ground to defend his brother—or he doesn’t understand that the mistake of the war was the decision to launch it, not the shoddy aftermath. Even with a more competent administration in charge, it’s likely the Iraq war would have remained a disaster: a needless diversion against an overblown threat that claimed tens of thousands of lives, committed the United States to a long destructive occupation, and destabilized the Middle East in ways that still reverberate. And if Bush doesn’t grasp the error of the invasion, then he’s liable to make a similar mistake if elected president.
Bush has to know this is toxic to the general public. Even with the gruesome violence of ISIS, pluralities—and sometimes majorities—of Americans oppose further major involvement in Iraq. Last June, in a poll from Quinnipiac University, 61 percent of Americans said the Iraq war was the wrong thing to do, and that October, in a poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, 66 percent of Americans said the war was “not worth it.”
But at this moment in the election, Bush isn’t speaking to the public. He’s speaking to Republicans. And even now, most Republicans think the war was a good idea. Last year, in a poll from USA Today and the Pew Research Center, 52 percent of Republicans said it was “right to use” military force in Iraq. And in the aforementioned Quinnipiac survey, 56 percent of Republicans agreed that the war “was the right thing for the United States.” In that instance, Republicans were the only group to show majority support.
If Bush were running unopposed—or with marginal opposition—there might not be an imperative to embrace the Iraq war. But he’s running in a crowded field of legitimate competitors, where most are hawkish (Sen. Rand Paul is the notable exception) and one, Sen. Marco Rubio, has the belligerent posturing of George W. Bush in his first term. In his 2010 campaign for Senate, Rubio praised the Iraq war for making the world “better off,” and in a 2013 speech in London, he called the war a “vitally important achievement” of America’s relationship with the United Kingdom. He’s pushed interventions in Syria (he would have armed the rebels), opposed withdrawal in Iraq and Afghanistan, and wants a more aggressive stance toward Iran. As Eliana Johnson wrote for National Review last year, Rubio is the neoconservative candidate for 2016: “To this group, beating back the rising tide of non-interventionism in the Republican party is a top priority, and they consider Rubio a candidate, if not the candidate, capable of doing so.”
You can chalk up Jeb Bush’s Iraq position to familial loyalty, if you want. But you shouldn’t ignore the politics of it. Bush needs to distinguish himself from a younger, more popular competitor in a congested presidential field. Embracing the Iraq war—and his brother’s legacy on foreign policy—is one way to challenge Rubio on his own turf, at least among donors and elites. Likewise, over on the left, Clinton is rejecting the triangulation of her husband and adopting progressive positions on criminal justice and immigration reform, to bolster her position and preclude a repeat of the 2008 primary.
Most observers assumed Clinton and Bush would be forced to make some moves because of the political legacy of family members. What’s ironic is that they’ve moved opposite of expectations. Bill Clinton is among the most popular presidents of recent memory, and George W. Bush is among the most disliked. But Hillary, eager to define herself and reconstitute the Obama coalition, has distanced herself from her husband while Jeb, fighting to build stature in a melee of a Republican primary, has pulled closer to his unsuccessful brother.