Jeb Bush’s Iraq stumbles set off alarms in GOP

getting heat:  ‘This is about as Politics 101 as you can get, and he mishandled it,’ said analyst Craig Robinson about Jeb Bush’s Iraq response.
getting heat: ‘This is about as Politics 101 as you can get, and he mishandled it,’ said analyst Craig Robinson about Jeb Bush’s Iraq response. AP

Jeb Bush is suddenly prompting questions among Republicans about the suitability of one of their top tier prospects for the 2016 presidential nomination.

Insiders were alarmed by his stumbling and bumbling this week to answer a seemingly obvious question about the most controversial element of his brother’s legacy, the Iraq war. They warned at week’s end that his loyalty to his family limited his flexibility as a candidate and, perhaps as president, and risked reinforcing a damning narrative that he would merely offer a third term of his brother.

“The big challenge now is, you don’t want to start your campaign with a re-litigation of the past,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who says that Republicans knew Bush’s challenge would be to clearly distinguish himself from his father and brother’s administrations. “Elections are inherently a contest about the future.”

Supporters privately expressed puzzlement at his performance and worried it might not be a one-time incident if the former two-term Florida governor, never one to submit to coaching or handling by aides and advisers, fails to adequately adapt for the brewing Republican primary fight.

Bush at first botched a Fox News interview by refusing to say he wouldn’t have invaded Iraq as his brother did in 2003 — even if he knew then what is now clear, that Saddam Hussein did not actually have weapons of mass destruction as once believed.

Under fire from even some incredulous conservatives, he then chalked up his reticence to not wanting to diminish the sacrifice of those who served, noting the phone calls he had to make as Florida governor to the families of fallen soldiers.

It wasn’t until Thursday – four days after the first interview, that he backed off.

“What just really stands out is lack of a discipline of a candidate,” said Iowa Republican analyst Craig Robinson. “This is about as Politics 101 as you can get, and he mishandled it not just once, but two or three times, prolonging the story. I thought he’d be the most disciplined, most prepared candidate in the field and it’s shocking to me he’s not.”

Bush vowed in February that he’d be his “own man.”

But he also tells audiences frequently that he loves his family and won’t make apologies for it. And he reportedly told a group of New York investors last week that his brother is his “most influential counselor on U.S.-Israel policy.”

That exchange, reported by the Washington Post, came as part of an answer to a question about Bush’s political aides and their policy views, following a dust up over former secretary of state James Baker, a Bush advisor who angered some Jewish groups by speaking to a left-leaning Israeli advocacy group in March.

“What all this reminds people of instead of being a forward-looking party with a forward looking nominee, we’re lapsing back,” said Robinson, editor of theiowarepublican.com website. “I don’t know anyone who wants to do that, who thinks it’s a good idea for Republicans to do that.”

The Bush stumbles give challengers opportunity. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, for example, who is struggling to rise above the middle of the pack among the Republican field, jumped at the chance to contrast his own opposition to the unpopular war.

Bush’s answer on Iraq, Paul said, “means we’re going to get George Bush 3.”

One saving grace for Bush might be that if he makes it through the Republican primaries, he could face former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has Iraq war issues herself, and who, unlike Bush, has declined to subject herself to daily parrying with reporters.

Bush could argue that he welcomes the fray, even if he makes mistakes. He has conducted several conservative radio interviews and at nearly event engages in a back and forth with reporters.

“He doesn’t shy away and he’s not going to,” Bush spokesman Tim Miller said. “That’s something you’ve seen this week.”

Clinton’s vote for the war as a New York senator haunted her 2008 presidential campaign against Barack Obama, who had opposed the war.

It wasn’t until her 2014 memoir, “Hard Choices,” that Clinton said emphatically that her vote to authorize the war was wrong.

She used similar language as Bush to explain why she hadn’t called the vote a mistake sooner: “In part it was because I didn’t want to say to the young men and women who were serving in the United States military in Iraq, fighting and dying and being injured, ‘yeah, one more person is saying it’s a mistake you’re there,’ ” she told the Aspen Ideas Festival in June 2014.

Sean Cockerham contributed to this article.

The Miami Herald’s Mazzei reported from Miami.

Email: lclark@mcclatchydc.com, pmazzei@miamiherald.com; Twitter: @lesleyclark, @patriciamazzei