Jeb Bush has had a brother problem from the start of his campaign. Asked about the 43rd president, George W. Bush, Jeb has always hemmed and hawed.
He said, “I love my brother ... but I’m my own man.” He noted that information on weapons of mass destruction from the intelligence community turned out “not to be accurate” and riffed that “there were mistakes made in Iraq, for sure.” He said that looking back, “anybody would have made different decisions.”
Despite their vast understatement, misuse of the passive voice, and blame-shifting, Jeb’s answers tamped down the issue. It helped that there were bigger fish to fry, as Jeb plunged in the polls. The fickle focus of the race moved on. You have to ask, then:
What in the world was Jeb thinking bringing his brother out to stump for him Monday? Sure, they appeared together at a rally in North Charleston, South Carolina — the buckle of the Bible-and-Military Belt. And there was little but happy talk as George W. took the stage to introduce his brother, who appeared without his glasses and dressed up in white shirt and tie. In an open-necked shirt, W. dragged out some old chestnuts about being “misunderestimated” and enjoying the “afterlife.”
He made some Mom jokes and stressed the importance of humility, God’s grace and good works. Surprisingly, he relived his experiences on Sept. 11, describing how he realized that the U.S. was being attacked while he read a book to schoolchildren in Florida. He endorsed his brother for president and disparaged critics with “loud voices.” But the announcement that W. would be leaving his painting studio in Texas to rally voters to his brother in South Carolina gave one loud voice a new pretext to relitigate Sept. 11.
Donald Trump’s attack on Bush was the centerpiece of Saturday night’s Republican debate, the last before the state’s Feb. 20 primary. And Trump kept up the barrage of criticism through Monday.
Trump usually can’t sustain a line of attack, but he was waiting to torment Bush in South Carolina. He landed his first frontal blow midway through Saturday’s debate.
“Obviously,” he said, “the war in Iraq was a big fat mistake, alright?” He went on, and on: “It took Jeb Bush ... five days — ‘It was a mistake, it wasn’t a mistake,’ — it took him five days before his people told him what to say.”
For good measure, he added, “We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East.”
He kept at Bush before an audience where criticizing a Bush is an unforgivable sin: “They lied. They said there were WMDs, and there were none.”
Jeb’s retort that Trump should quit criticizing his family met cheers. Trump’s insistence that the World Trade Center fell down during Jeb’s brother’s reign met boos. But that was the reaction at a debate where, as Trump claimed, the audience was filled with large donors.
Beyond that room, the Iraq war is a loser, to paraphrase Trump, and barely a winner among Republicans. A scant majority of 51 percent cling to the belief that Iraq possessed WMDs (which were never found) according to a 2015 poll from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Right now, Jeb must be going for broke, thinking, “Whatever gets me through the next primary.” Trump must be thinking, “I’ve let this ‘He kept us safe’ business go on long enough.”
George W. Bush reportedly drew more than 3,000 people to rally for Jeb in North Charleston. But about 13.5 million viewers watched Trump cream Jeb onstage at the debate. Historically, presidential siblings — think Donald Nixon, Billy Carter and Roger Clinton — have hurt only themselves, not the country. For Jeb, the presidential candidate who was supposed to run away with the nomination, his brother is a one-man WMD.
Jeb should actually be more like his brother, who himself had no trouble at all back in 2000 cutting off his father with barely a look back.
When he said, “I’m my own man,” he really meant it. Whether he was overcompensating psychologically or politically for his father’s alleged wimpiness in not taking the Gulf War from Kuwait to Baghdad, or merely acting under his surrogate father Dick Cheney’s influence, George W. jumped to depose Saddam Hussein and unleashed a catastrophe in the Middle East that haunts us today. Trump has mocked a disabled reporter, a revered prisoner of war and a Fox News anchor, to name a few.
It could be that he’s finally gone too far.
You can no more criticize Bush royalty in South Carolina than say you hate grits.
It would be amazing if W., who started out as Jeb’s biggest liability, is the one to save him from a devastating defeat in the Palmetto State.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.