Why stop with Iraq? There's plenty more for the GOP to relitigate about the George W. Bush era

Jeb Bush's difficulty talking about his brother opens the field to many more questions

Published May 14, 2015 5:49PM (EDT)

  (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

That even Marco Rubio, the neocons' heartthrob this go-around, is saying "no" to the question of the week -- knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion of Iraq? -- tells us much about how the field views Jeb Bush: too constrained by his "family ties," such as they are, to fight with both fists.

We're in a situation where the non-Bush presidential candidates are leaping at the opportunity to denounce the Iraq War. (Amid the fever pitch, Bush himself finally said Thursday that "knowing what we know now, I would not have engaged.") The calculus here is tricky. Why didn't this happen years ago? A lot of it boils down to: since Jeb Bush came across as having no idea what's going on -- to the desperate point where he hid behind "it would be a disservice to the troops" -- the best bet is to come across as having a firm idea of what's going on. That means answering the question directly with either a "yes" or "no." Answering "yes" to the question of whether they would have authorized the invasion of Iraq, knowing that there were no WMDs, would not exactly charm the socks off of the Republican primary electorate, and it would straight-up terrify would-be general election voters. Better to go with "no," especially if that answer has the blessing of Popes Erickson and Ingraham.

There is some risk to criticizing George W. Bush within the context of a Republican primary: Jeb's brother is still quite popular among evangelical voting blocs in Iowa, South Carolina, and elsewhere. (As the New York Times shrewdly notes, this means that Jeb may have to lean on his brother to survive the GOP primary, even if that disrupts his best laid general election plans.) That's why Marco Rubio's response to the question was the most effective in terms of appealing to all constituencies: "Not only would I not have been in favor of it, President Bush would not have been in favor of it." (Effective, though risible: Bush and his team were determined to go to war with Iraq and the WMD argument was just one of several they threw against the wall.) And it's an effective answer made possible only by the politics of the moment: six weeks prior to the Grand Jeb Bush Dumpster Fire of May '15, Marco Rubio was still very much in love with the Iraq war.

Progress is progress, though, and GOPers saying -- albeit 12 years too late -- that the Iraq war was a dumbass move is certainly progress. And it makes you wonder if the indirect way we reached this point might be useful in achieving more progress.

If Jeb Bush is going to flop around like a silly person whenever pressed with questions about the most controversial legacies of his brother's reign, and that prompts the other candidates to boldly announce their positions in a display of dazzling clarity, maybe the conversation should shift towards that other biggie: torture. Waterboarding. Rectal feeding with scorpions, or whatever it was.

Here's the new question: As president, would you rescind the Obama administration's executive order banning the use of torture, and reinstate waterboarding?

If history is any predictor, Jeb Bush will say yes, then he will say he "misinterpreted the question," then he will say "I don't know," then he will say that he won't entertain that hypothetical because of the troops.

What will the other candidates say? They could all dodge, too, but then they'd be just as squishy as Jeb Bush, and who wants that? If they say "no, I would not reinstate waterboarding," then they risk look like lily-livered cowards who love the terrorists. And if they say "yes"... then, well, they will have said "yes" to a question about whether they'd reinstate waterboarding. Which would be quite something.

Awhile back, when Jeb Bush was just starting to get questions about his brother's record, I wrote that it was unfair that he should be the only candidate who gets difficult questions about the record of the most recent Republican president. All Republican candidates, not just ones with direct fraternal relations to George W. Bush, should have to answer questions about the legacy of the figure who served as President of the United States for a majority of the 21st century. On Iraq, that's all playing out this week, and it's been more revealing than expected. Let's keep it up -- even if doing so is a blatant disservice to the troops.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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