There never was much of anything in Nevada. Then there was Las Vegas – the glitziest and tackiest place in the world. Las Vegas, however, is not exactly a city. It’s an assemblage of massive casinos, with the necessary infrastructure, in the middle of an absolute desert. It shouldn’t even exist, but when Hoover Dam was built, to gather and redirect the waters of the Colorado River to real places, its massive hydroelectric generators produced massive amounts of dirt-cheap electric power, so an unreal city nearby was possible. Las Vegas was now possible. Hoover Dam also explains all the neon. But the rest of the state is empty.
Then there’s Reno – “The Biggest Little City in the World” – up north, on the California border. That’s the only other “city” in Nevada, but it’s pretty much all casinos too, with better scenery – the high desert at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains is rather pleasant. Still, it’s a Gold Rush town that should have disappeared when the gold did, and didn’t, because it could become a cut-rate Las Vegas, with the bad lounge acts that couldn’t cut it in Vegas. That makes it a place to hide out, not to hang out. No one goes there. It’s not what they call a destination city. Nothing much happens there.
That’s probably why Jeb Bush, having a hard time explaining to everyone why he should be the third President Bush, scheduled a stop there to explain that, once again, and to answer a few questions. What could go wrong in this out-of-the-way place?
“Your brother created ISIS,” the young woman told Jeb Bush. And with that, Ivy Ziedrich, a 19-year-old college student, created the kind of confrontational moment here on Wednesday morning that presidential candidates dread.
Mr. Bush, the former governor of Florida, had just concluded a town-hall-style meeting when Ms. Ziedrich demanded to be heard. “Governor Bush,” she shouted as audience members asked him for his autograph. “Would you take a student question?”
Mr. Bush whirled around and looked at Ms. Ziedrich, who identified herself as a political science major and a college Democrat at the University of Nevada.
He should have whirled away:
She had heard Mr. Bush argue, a few moments before, that America’s retreat from the Middle East under President Obama had contributed to the growing power of the Islamic State. She told the former governor that he was wrong, and made the case that blame lay with the decision by the administration of his brother George W. Bush to disband the Iraqi Army.
“It was when 30,000 individuals who were part of the Iraqi military were forced out – they had no employment, they had no income, and they were left with access to all of the same arms and weapons,” Ms. Ziedrich said.
She added: “Your brother created ISIS.”
Jeb didn’t need that. He went on to say Iraq was just fine in his brother’s last year in office – no problems at all – but Obama refused to force Malaki and the Iraq government to agree to us keeping ten thousand troops there to keep things perfect. He said we had an agreement that Obama could have signed that would have kept our folks there, to keep things there just fine – but we pulled back. No one has ever heard of this agreement before – his brother had signed an agreement for total withdrawal – but before anyone could ask about that, Jeb was gone. He’d had enough of Reno. He couldn’t hide out there after all.
Josh Marshall adds this:
These moments pop up in campaigns. Sometimes they are more contrived than others. Who knows what this woman’s precise motivations were? But that’s sort of beside the point. Bush is uniquely vulnerable to this not simply because he’s President Bush’s brother but even more because both in spite of and because of that connection he is unable to come to grips with the signature event of his brother’s presidency.
So he’s gone, over a couple days, from saying that after everything that’s happened in the last dozen years he’d invade Iraq all over again, to saying “mistakes were made” and it’s complicated, to saying now that he won’t answer the question because it wouldn’t be fair to the troops.
He radiates pain and awkwardness, which makes and will make every episode like this a spectacle.
That third explanation was awkward, as MSNBC’s Carrie Dann reports here:
Jeb Bush says that he does not want to engage in “hypotheticals” about the Iraq war because it is a “disservice” to individuals who lost their lives during the conflict.
Asked by an audience member during a Nevada town hall about his interview on the subject with FOX News’ Megyn Kelly, Bush reiterated his claim that he misheard her question about whether he would have authorized the invasion of Iraq. But he disputed the questioner’s premise in asking “Don’t you think running for president is hypothetical?”
“If we’re going to get back into hypotheticals, I think it does a disservice to a lot of people who sacrificed a lot,” Bush said.
On Tuesday, Bush also said that he misheard Kelly’s question but added that he is unsure whether or not he would have made the same decision as his brother to go to war in Iraq.
“I don’t know what that decision would have been, that’s a hypothetical. But the simple fact is that mistakes were made,” he said.
Speaking to reporters after the Nevada event on Wednesday, he said “to delve into [the past] and not focus on the future is where I need to draw the line.”
He should have never gone to Reno – no one else does – and Ed Kilgore piles on:
The whole can’t-criticize-the-war-without-criticizing-the-troops thing is hackneyed, cowardly, and also, like his entire rap here, kind of undermined by the fact that his brother the former president of the United State who supervised the war has been able to say flatly it was a mistake. And at least lately, W. did not, as Jeb incredibly did again today, retreat into the passive construction dodge of saying “mistakes were made.”
But more broadly, the idea that revisiting the past is something he’s just not going to do anymore because it inconveniences him is just astonishing. Does this mean he won’t second-guess the past actions of Bill or Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama? Does the present pass into the past instantly the moment he lives it, making this whole inquiry into his treatment of the past another thing from the past he won’t talk about?
Maybe so, but the past is always a problem, and for Republicans at the moment, a big problem. They can’t hide there, and Jonathan Chait explores how they are struggling with that:
Yesterday, Chris Moody asked several Republican presidential candidates one of the most revealing questions of the presidential campaign so far: Who is the greatest president alive today? Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump all named Ronald Reagan, notwithstanding the fact that Reagan, at least according to the liberal media, is no longer alive. And if you’re going to cheat a “greatest living president” question by naming a dead one, you could just as easily go ahead and name Lincoln or Washington. But that would amount to a form of blasphemy.
What makes the question so devilish is that the ranks of the living presidents offer no answer to the question that can square with conservative doctrine. Two of the living ex-presidents (Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton) are eliminated off the bat on account of party affiliation. The other two, George Bush and George W. Bush, have been excommunicated for committing real or imagined ideological heresy. The Reagan answer was not a mistake – it was the reflection of a party lacking a usable past.
Without a usable real past – a safe place to hide – they made up a fake one:
For the last 25 years, Reaganolotry [Chait’s formation] has retained its grip on Republican doctrine. Reaganolotry holds up Reagan as a standard of perfection against which every other president is judged. The Reagan of the Republican imagination bears only a loose relation to the actual man. “Reagan” has come to represent conservative control of the Republican Party. A Reaganesque politician hews to simple precepts, like no new taxes ever, and unyielding hawkishness in foreign affairs. He symbolizes the apparent success of a proposition conservative activists began to make in the 1950s: that the party’s failures were a result of its moderation, and that its success would come if it adopted uncompromising conservative doctrine. That Reagan himself played an important role in that movement in the 1960s, and then presided over a popular two-term administration, makes him a uniquely potent symbol.
In reality, Reagan himself violated conservative precepts flagrantly. As an activist, he warned that the enactment of Medicare would herald the end of freedom in America. As president, he agreed to increase taxes, a progressive tax reform shifting a higher proportion of taxes onto the rich, and arms control with the Soviets – all to massive right-wing dismay. All these deviations were necessary for his political success, but conservatives forgot them to make him symbolically useful.
And he was useful:
In 1990, George Bush agreed to raise taxes in return for spending cuts, as Reagan had done. When Bush lost reelection, this compromise served as the conservative explanation for his failure. He had lost because he had betrayed Reaganism. George Bush took his place in party lore as the anti-Reagan, a cautionary tale of the disaster that would greet a Republican who deviated from the true Reaganite faith. Indeed, when George W. Bush ran for president at the end of the decade, he had to conspicuously disassociate himself from his father and cast himself as a follower of Reagan.
Bush governed in a more consistently conservative fashion than Reagan had. He relentlessly cut taxes, increased defense spending, and opposed regulation. Bush had retrenched on Medicare prescription drugs (much like Reagan had given up his opposition to Medicare) in the face of overwhelming public opposition to the conservative stance, but this failure hardly troubled conservatives at the time. They endorsed his election enthusiastically. The prescription drug failure merited just one sentence in National Review’s enthusiastic endorsement of his reelection in 2004. Even as fanatic a purist as Ted Cruz was a Bush fanboy then. It was Bush’s second-term collapse into deep unpopularity that forced conservatives to retroactively disown him as a heretic.
Bush has never fully recovered his standing with the party faithful.
Chait finds that ironic, because the second Bush was what they really wanted, and as much as they ignore him, they are committed to his Imaginary-Reagan policies:
All the Republican candidates are running on a domestic platform centered on regressive, debt-financed tax cuts as the key to economic growth. With the exception of an increasingly marginalized Rand Paul, all advocate a “muscular,” “Reaganesque” foreign policy that provided the same template Bush followed to his political demise.
And that explains Jeb’s dilemma:
The fealty to Bushian foreign-policy doctrine caught Jeb Bush in a recent flub. Megyn Kelly of Fox News asked Bush whether, knowing what we do today, he still would have invaded Iraq. Bush affirmed that he would. What made Bush’s answer so strange is that the question was posed to him in the easiest way possible. Answering whether he was right to support the invasion given the intelligence available at the time would have been a hard question. Asking if it were right given the benefit of hindsight is simple. As Byron York points out, even Karl Rove and George W. Bush himself have strongly implied that they would not.
Jeb positioned himself as more stubbornly supportive of the Bush administration than even the Bush administration itself. He is oddly more loyal to his brother’s legacy than his brother was to their father’s.
Maybe that’s not so odd. Jeb seems to be loyal to the legacy of the idealized imaginary Ronald Reagan, and his brother came pretty close there, but Chait sees the fatal flaw:
Republicans today embrace George W. Bush’s ideas but not the man himself. This leaves them with no living model of a successful presidency they can publicly identify. The question of which president they would choose is not a trick but a reflection of a stark reality: They have no evidence the demands of conservative ideology and practical governing success can be reconciled.
That specifically leaves them with the evidence that the Iraq war was a disaster, as that persistent student in Reno decided to point out, and that is where the past has to be reconciled to ISIS and the present. That’s not just Jeb’s problem, as Paul Waldman argues here:
Ah yes, mistakes were made. But we’ve also heard from two other Republican candidates, and they’ve been a lot more clear. Says Chris Christie: “I don’t think you can honestly say that if we knew then that there was no WMD that the country should have gone to war.” And when Ted Cruz was asked whether he would have invaded, he answered: “Of course not. The entire predicate of the war against Iraq was the intelligence that showed they had weapons of mass destruction and that there was a real risk they might use them.”
There are few things we in the media love more than an intra-party argument (not to mention a front-running candidate stumbling), so this controversy is already getting plenty of attention and will surely get more. It’s encouraging to see an acknowledgement that the Iraq War was a mistake finally become majority opinion in the GOP, given that it was probably the greatest foreign policy catastrophe in American history.
But before we make too much of that shift, we need to be clear that the actual substantive disagreements between the candidates are much smaller than it would appear if you were just tuning in now. Republicans may be criticizing Jeb Bush, but they aren’t coming at him from the left, and they aren’t actually turning their backs on most of what his brother represented.
There are only minor differences of opinion within the party:
Most former Bush administration officials will defend the invasion to their dying day and insist that it was a grand idea, whether there were any weapons of mass destruction or not. Those who have less of a personal stake in the war vary more in their opinions (of all the actual and potential Republican candidates, only Lindsey Graham and Rick Santorum were in the Senate in 2003 and voted for the resolution approving the war).
But opinions don’t actually vary all that much. All the candidates agree that we should increase military spending. With the exception of Rand Paul, all express an unrestrained enthusiasm for military adventurism. That’s one thing Iraq hasn’t changed: Republicans still believe that the application of military force is a great way to solve problems around the world.
The only difference of opinion comes after the first wave of bombing. Ted Cruz explicitly warns against nation-building, but he doesn’t express any reservations about the use of military force. Later today, Marco Rubio will give a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations about his foreign policy views, and they sound an awful lot like George W. Bush’s: increase military spending and spread American values with “moral clarity.”
Scott Walker wants to dump any deal on Iran’s nuclear program the moment he takes office, making military action there far more likely. So does Marco Rubio. None of the GOP candidates will say he wants to occupy Iran. But military action against the country’s nuclear facilities ought to be, as any of them will tell you, “on the table.”
Jeb isn’t way out there all alone:
With the exception of Paul, none of the candidates seems willing to grapple with the possibility that there are unintended consequences to military action that we need to be wary of. At most, they think the problems come only when you stick around too long after reducing a nation to rubble. And when you listen to them talk about Barack Obama’s foreign policy record, the word they use over and over again is “weak.” The problem is never that some situations we confront offer no good options, or that our decisions can backfire, or that there are places where America may not be able to set things right to the benefit of all. The problem is always weakness, and strength is always the solution.
Everyone understands why Jeb Bush is floundering around trying to answer the question of whether the Iraq War was a mistake from the beginning: It was his brother’s war. But neither he nor his opponents seem to have learned much from the experience, whether we’re asking about concocting phony intelligence to sell a war you’ve already decided you want, believing that all the “bad guys” in the world must be in cahoots, seeing every foreign policy question in black and white, or putting blind faith in the idea that “strength” is all you need to succeed.
That’s what the idealized imaginary Ronald Reagan would do. The real Ronald Reagan, in 1983, suddenly pulled all our troops out of Lebanon when an obscure group calling itself ‘Islamic Jihad’ claimed responsibility for the bombings that killed about three hundred of our marines in their barracks in Beirut. That’s all we did. We left. The real Ronald Reagan wasn’t going to start a major war over there, to fix things once and for all. We left and immediately invaded Grenada – that would do to make folks feel better, and it was easily done and over quickly. The real Ronald Reagan would be puzzled by the current Republicans who love him so, and Waldman can only add this:
The George W. Bush years provided an emphatic refutation of the ideas underlying Republican foreign policy, but few in the party seem to have gotten the message, even if they have some minor disagreements today. They might not be looking at the invasion of Iraq in exactly the same way, but few in the party are asking anything but the most superficial questions about what lessons we might learn from it.
But the questions will keep coming, and they won’t be superficial, and there’ll be nowhere to hide, not even in Reno.