It’s tough work being Jeb Bush these days. There are so many competing forces pulling him in opposite directions. Jeb wants to be president and his surname makes him instantly recognizable to most of the country, but the past Bushes who’ve held the office over the past couple of decades also make that surname something of a drag. He can downplay pedigree when selling himself to the general public, but he also relies on his family’s established network of donors to raise the gross amounts of cash he’ll need to run. He’s Mr. Bush at the office, but Jeb to you and me.
Jeb is, of course, sensitive to the problems his brother’s and father’s legacies may cause when dealing with the general public, and he’s taken steps to create his own identity and assert his independence from the Bush brand. Nowhere is this need more pressing than in the foreign policy realm – the Iraq war is still too fresh in the country’s collective memory for Jeb to pretend it’s not an issue. And so, during his big foreign policy speech in February, he boldly declared that he was a Jeb unto himself:
BUSH: I love my father and my brother. I admire their service to the nation and the difficult decisions they had to make. But I am my own man – and my views are shaped by my own thinking and own experiences.
It made for a good, if slightly desperate, soundbite, but really the “I am my own man” shtick was doomed before he could say the words out loud. Jeb spent his tenure as governor of Florida cheering on the Iraq war and enthusiastically backing his brother’s foreign policy vision. And his team of foreign policy advisers is stuffed with veterans from his father’s and brother’s administrations, to include neocon stumblebum Paul Wolfowitz. And as the Iranian nuclear negotiations have come to dominate the 2016 campaign conversation, those same Bush veterans on Jeb’s foreign policy team are throwing their weight around and exerting greater influence over “my own man” Jeb.
The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that “more hawkish Republicans — represented by the prominent, interventionist neoconservatives who populated the ranks of the George W. Bush administration — have repeatedly raised concerns about the more pragmatic foreign policy team being assembled around Mr. Bush.” And they just recently claimed a scalp: Jeb backed down from hiring national security wonk Elbridge Colby as his foreign policy director. What was Colby’s sin? He thinks preemptively attacking Iran to halt its nuclear ambitions is a dangerous and stupid idea that won’t work. What a loon!
This latest bit of internal drama came right on the heels of another ugly little spat in which GOP hawks railed at Jeb after James Baker, a veteran of the George H.W. Bush administration and one of Jeb’s foreign policy advisers, gave a speech criticizing Benjamin Netanyahu. Jeb was caught: he couldn’t repudiate Baker because of his close ties to the family, but he also couldn’t stand by and let donors who love Netanyahu question his “commitment to Israel.” So he did the only thing he could think of: he appealed to the love those donors still feel for his brother:
Jewish donors also remain angry at Mr. Bush for a March 23 speech that Mr. Baker, who was secretary of state under Mr. Bush’s father, delivered to J Street, a liberal pro-Israel advocacy group. Mr. Adelson, perhaps the single largest Republican donor, quickly complained to Mel Sembler, a Florida developer who has long supported Mr. Bush. And Mr. Bush was pressed again about Mr. Baker’s speech at another California even last week.
In defending himself, Mr. Bush, who has described himself as “my own man” on foreign policy, pointed out that his brother had a strong record of support for Israel, one attendee said.
So the “my own man” thing hasn’t been a rousing success to date, but it wasn’t ever going to be. Despite the wishful thinking of Rand Paul and other libertarian-ish GOP politicians, the Republican Party’s foreign policy is still thoroughly dominated by the Bush Doctrine. Conservatives and Republicans honestly believe that Bush left office having succeeded in Iraq, and that things only went south because Obama screwed it up. They eat it up when Dick Cheney periodically emerges from his hate cocoon to call Obama the worst foreign policy president in history.
Contending with that political reality means that Jeb has to stay within the Republican foreign policy mainstream, which was established by George W. Bush. Jeb can insist he’s his “own man” on foreign policy all he likes, but it will never be true. He’ll end up standing on his brother’s shoulders whether he wants to or not, and it’s pretty clear that he wants to, but he'd rather you and I not know it.