2016’s Mission Impossible: Support Jeb While Forgetting George

Republicans won’t repent the Bush/Cheney mistakes, so they have to keep pushing them out of mind.

The aura of inevitability around Jeb Bush’s nomination started to flicker this week, as he gave four different answers about Iraq in four days.

  • Monday, he responded to Fox News’ Megan Kelly’s question: “On the subject of Iraq, knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?” With “I would have, and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody.” (In her 2014 book Hard Choices, Clinton addressed the topic like this: “I wasn’t alone in getting it wrong. But I still got it wrong. Plain and simple.”)
  • Tuesday, he told Sean Hannity that he had misinterpreted Kelly’s question, but still avoided answering: “I don’t know what that decision would have been, that’s a hypothetical. But the simple fact is that mistakes were made.”
  • Wednesday, at a town hall meeting in Nevada, he defended Tuesday’s non-answer, citing the feelings of the families of the soldiers who died in Iraq: “Going back in time and talking about hypothetical, ‘what would have happened, what could have happened,’ I think does a disservice for them.”
  • Thursday in Arizona, he finally gave the opposite of Monday’s answer: “Knowing what we now know, what would you have done? I would not have engaged. I would not have gone into Iraq.”

While this clumsy performance does raise doubts about Bush’s ability to run a smooth campaign — how could have he not have foreseen that question and prepared a better answer? — it was just a bad week, and he has a lot of weeks to get back on track before any votes are cast. But Jeb’s Iraq misfortunes underline a larger handicap for Republicans in general in Jeb in particular: In response to the horrible shape President Bush left the country in — and the corresponding electoral disaster of 2008 — the Republican Party still has not developed any better strategy than pretending George W. Bush never existed.

For comparison, Bill Clinton came back from his impeachment to be one of the most valued campaigners in the Democratic Party, with prime-time speaking slots at every Democratic Convention since he left office. (Bill has in fact spoken at every convention since he gave a widely-panned nomination speech for Mike Dukakis in 1988. I wonder if seven in a row is a record.) But W has been a no-show at Republican conventions, and his political appearances in general have been limited to closed-door fund-raisers in front of audiences known to be friendly. As for the other major players in his administration: Dick Cheney was not even in the country during the 2012 GOP convention, where the only speaker with a major Bush-administration role was Condoleeza Rice, who Romney’s people needed for racial and gender diversity.

During this time that they’ve kept W himself locked in the basement, though, Republicans have never rejected his policies or philosophy. Again, compare to the Democrats: Bill Clinton’s centrist “New Democrats” turned away from classic liberalism after bad losses in 1980, 1984, and 1988; and recent Democrats have changed their minds about specific Clinton administration policies while continuing to cite the successes — relative peace, low inflation, low unemployment, and budget surpluses — of the Clinton era in general. For example, many Democrats cheered when the Supreme Court rejected the Defense of Marriage Act, and Hillary’s recent speech against “mass incarceration” implicitly rejected Bill’s 1994 crime bill.

But in spite of all the “revolutionary” noise the Tea Party has made since Bush left office, their candidates’ proposals (with the exception of Rand Paul’s isolationism and several candidates’ anti-immigrant positions) are to do more of what Bush did: cut taxes on the rich, cut regulations on corporations and the big banks, boost fossil fuel production, deny global warming, hold the line against gay rights, keep chipping at abortion rights, and don’t shy away from new wars in the Middle East.

You can’t ask for forgiveness if you won’t repent, so Republicans’ only option is to keep pushing out of mind the mess left behind the last time a president implemented these policies.

Like all people trying to forget a traumatic past, Republicans are full of impatience and even anger when Democrats bring it up: Why can’t Obama stand on his own record rather than keep blaming things on the disaster he inherited from his predecessor? The rare occasions when they speak the forbidden name usually are coupled with some major memory lapse, as when Rudy Giuliani edited 9/11 out of history: “We had no domestic attacks under Bush.”

I’m reminded of a quote in Patrick Smith’s Somebody Else’s Century, from a Chinese man reflecting on the horrors of the Cultural Revolution: “The official forgetting we are supposed to do will not produce the desired result. [Eventually] people forget why they are supposed to forget, and then they start to remember.”

It’s still too soon for Republicans to remember the Bush administration, because the American people still haven’t forgotten why we’re supposed to forget. So any successful 2016 Republican general-election campaign will have to continue making the Bush/Cheney years disappear. And, as we saw this week, the candidate least likely to pull off that trick is Jeb Bush.

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  • helenaconstantine  On May 18, 2015 at 5:22 pm

    I still feel inclined to agree with Hitches that removing a tyrant was a perfectly could reason to go to war; the problem was that the people in charge had no idea of how to go about it–literally they had no plan for what would happen after the regular Iraqi army was crushed (a trivial matter) and didn’t seem to care. I remember thinking at the time that 15 years alter, Iraq would turn out like Germany and Japan after our occupation, and I still think it could have if the matter hadn’t been in the hands of incompetent war criminals like Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush.

    • Paul Bradford  On May 18, 2015 at 9:15 pm

      If removing a tyrant is a good reason to go to war, then we’d be at war with dozens of countries around the world, including Russia and China. We can’t impose democracy on the world. Germany and Japan are extremely atypical. At the time the US imposed democracy on them, they already had highly homogeneous populations, which makes them much more likely to accept the results of elections – the losers will accept the results because the winners are like them (and won’t kill them). Doug explained this quite well in one of his posts, which I can’t find at the moment. I think the successful examples of Germany and Japan fooled the American people into thinking this was a common, easily-reproduced pattern.

      • weeklysift  On May 21, 2015 at 8:02 am

        Paul might be talking about one of the last things I published on the blog that spawned The Weekly Sift: Pirate Treasure: Why Oil and Democracy Don’t Mix. (Though I think some of the same ideas have shown up on the Sift, too.)

        That essay’s main point is that there is a prerequisite for a society to have a successful democracy: a broad consensus about all the issues that are worth killing and dying for. If that consensus doesn’t exist, the people who lose the vote on such issues will take up arms rather than comply and wait for the next election.

        Imposing democracy worked in Japan, because Japan was a very homogeneous society that already had a tradition of finding consensus. In Iraq, you didn’t have that consensus, particularly on the question of who owns the oil and who should benefit from its sale.

      • weeklysift  On May 21, 2015 at 8:09 am

        A sift article on the same topic is Who’s Ready for Democracy?.

      • pauljbradford  On June 15, 2015 at 1:50 pm

        Doug’s article that I was thinking of several weeks ago was this one from 2005: http://www.gurus.org/dougdeb/politics/cut_and_run.html

  • Brent Holman  On May 20, 2015 at 4:31 am

    Seems to me I bought some JELLY a while back….Maybe is was JEBBY!
    A product that one does not know what exactly is in it….


  • By The Memory Hole | The Weekly Sift on May 18, 2015 at 11:17 am

    […] week’s featured posts are “2016’s Mission Impossible: Support Jeb While Forgetting George” and “Civics for Dummies: Judicial Review“, where I explain why Mike Huckabee […]

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