WASHINGTON – Jeb Bush promised he would be his “own man,” and this week he proved it – alas for him.
The former Florida governor, often regarded as the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, managed over an extraordinary 72 hours to demonstrate that he is not anything like his older brother, the former president. He showed himself to be indecisive, uncertain where he stands, afraid of his shadow and nakedly calculating.
Love or hate George W. Bush, you can’t deny that he was a decisive, forceful leader. When I covered his White House for The Washington Post, I found it easy to know what Bush was going to do next – because he did exactly what he promised. The man was not given to nuance and reflection, and when he declared he was going to do something – tax cuts, wars, private Social Security accounts – he pounded away at it until he won or lost.
Now comes his kid brother, firm as Jell-O. First, Jeb told Fox News that, even knowing what we know now, he would have invaded Iraq. Then he said he misunderstood the question, “I guess,” and wasn’t quite sure what he would have done. Then he refused to say what he would have done because it would do a “disservice” to those who died. Then he allowed that “anybody would have made different decisions” but said he would “draw the line” at dwelling in the past. Finally, on Thursday, Bush found clarity at a brewery in Arizona. “Knowing what we now know,” he said, “I would not have gone into Iraq.”
Jeb Bush: Is that your final answer?
Bush easily could have explained away his answer to Fox’s Megyn Kelly as a misunderstanding; his full answer suggests as much. Alternatively, he could have attempted a Dick Cheney-style defense of the Iraq War, refusing to acknowledge any sort of error.
The answer itself is less troubling than his inability to settle on a response to an obvious and predictable question. This implies an alarming caution. If he gets the proverbial 3 a.m. phone call, Bush gives the impression that he would call back with his answer after lunch.
This undermines the very logic of his candidacy. Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, is congenitally cautious, and her campaign goes to great lengths to keep her from saying much of anything to anybody.
The Republicans’ best hope is to nominate somebody who is unafraid to speak. “Indecision ‘16” is not a winning theme for the GOP.
Clinton’s preference for vacuous campaigning gives Republicans an opening.
NPR’s Tamara Keith did an entertaining compilation of the 13 “questions” Clinton had taken since announcing her candidacy a month ago. There have been no news conferences and no formal interviews, and the remarks tend to be about the daffodils in Iowa and the “great” and “fabulous” and “best” time she is having there.
My colleagues Anne Gearan and Philip Rucker, in a “brief interview” with the candidate last month, asked her about campaign-finance policy. “We do have a plan. We have a plan for my plan,” she explained.
When Clinton does proffer a thought, it turns out, the thought is often recycled from previous statements.
The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website, assembled an extensive compilation last week of passages from Clinton’s memoir, “Hard Choices,” that were copied from her previous speeches, testimony and writings.
Among the couple dozen examples is this passage from Chapter 3: “This vast region, from the Indian Ocean to the tiny nations of the Pacific, is home to more than half the world’s population, several of our most trusted allies. …” And from her 2012 speech at the Naval Academy: “This vast region, from the Indian Ocean to the Western shores of the Americas, is home to half the world’s population, several of our most trusted allies. …”
Clinton is entitled to plagiarize herself, but it illustrates her debilitating caution – a trait that Bush or another Republican could exploit in 2016. Instead, we got this fuzz from Bush, trying not to answer the Iraq question: “I admired the men and women – mostly men – that made the ultimate sacrifice. So, going back in time and talking about hypotheticals – what would have happened, what could have happened, I think, does a disservice for them.”
Answering a question is not a disservice to American heroes who died in Iraq doing what they were ordered to do. Failing to take a stand is a disservice to American voters, who deserve stronger leaders.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.