Those of us of a certain age – the term has an interesting history but generally means someone who has been around for a long time and now knows a thing or two, but is now irrelevant and rather useless – you know, old farts – remember Dan Quayle – George H. W. Bush’s vice president. Quayle was that earnest young fellow with that vacant look, when he didn’t look bewildered, and he said the oddest things – “I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy, but that could change.” – “I believe that I’ve made good judgments in the past, and I think I’ve made good judgments in the future.”
Reporters rolled their eyes. A few friendly reporters cleaned up his quotes as best they could. Everyone knew what he meant, sort of, and he was, after all, harmless. He was only the vice president. It’s not as if he was running the country, but he was an embarrassment:
On May 19, 1992, Quayle gave a speech to the Commonwealth Club of California on the subject of the Los Angeles riots. In this speech, Quayle blamed the violence on a decay of moral values and family structure in American society. In an aside, he cited the single mother title character in the television program Murphy Brown as an example of how popular culture contributes to this “poverty of values”, saying, “It doesn’t help matters when primetime TV has Murphy Brown – a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid, professional woman – mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another ‘lifestyle choice’.”
The “Murphy Brown speech” became one of the most memorable incidents of the 1992 campaign. Long after the outcry had ended, the comment continued to have an effect on U.S. politics. Stephanie Coontz, a professor of family history and the author of several books and essays about the history of marriage, says that this brief remark by Quayle about Murphy Brown “kicked off more than a decade of outcries against the collapse of the family”. In 2002, Candice Bergen, the actress who played Brown, said “I never have really said much about the whole episode, which was endless, but his speech was a perfectly intelligent speech about fathers not being dispensable and nobody agreed with that more than I did.” Others interpreted it differently; singer Tanya Tucker was widely quoted as saying “Who the hell is Dan Quayle to come after single mothers?”
After that, the Bush administration hid him – the guy picked the wrong fights and said stupid things – but it was too late. George H. W. Bush didn’t win a second term. We got Bill Clinton, and his vice president, Al Gore. Surreal syntax and odd disputes were no longer an issue, until the second President Bush. George W. Bush had the same problems with the English language and with odd arguments. It was as if Dan Quayle had returned, and this time he was running the country. That didn’t go well.
Could that happen again? Brent Budowsky, a columnist at The Hill, does worry about that, wondering if Jeb Bush is the new Dan Quayle:
A longtime friend and wise political sage in Texas asked me this morning: “Brent, do you think Jeb Bush is the new Sarah Palin or the new Dan Quayle?”
That was a frightening question:
Sarah Palin has wit and charm, but I would never vote for her for anything, and if McCain-Palin had won in 2008 and Palin ever became president, I would either have built a bomb shelter or moved to Paris. There were so many great issues of state she knew nothing about, and she had more than one wild and crazy idea when discussing global security. Her finger on the nuclear button is a thought that makes my hair fall out.
On the other hand, after the week from hell that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) has just created for himself, I am convinced that there is a great analogy between the Jeb Bush that runs for president in 2016 and the Dan Quayle that ran for vice president in 1988. Quayle was fundamentally a good guy, and a reasonably decent senator – more than was given credit for (even though I usually disagreed with him).
The parallels are there:
Bush, like Quayle, comes from a high-level family pedigree and was a respectable governor in the same way Quayle was a respectable senator. There are many matters that Bush has substantive knowledge of, but how to run for president is not among them.
This week, the Republican debates began in earnest. There were two. The first was Jeb Bush vs. Jeb Bush, which Jeb Bush lost. How many positions did he take on Iraq? Three? Four? A steady hand at the helm he was not.
Then Bush accidentally appeared to announce he was running for president, a statement with great consequence for the nation and serious legal consequence for his fundraising. And then Bush flip-flopped again, retracting his announcement for president, probably after his campaign lawyers found their hair falling out!
The second Republican debate this week involved Jeb Bush vs. George W. Bush, and both Bushes lost that debate. Jeb Bush lost because he appeared incoherent, confused and duplicitous in changing his position on the major war of the last decade, and he had that deer-in-the-headlights look that Quayle had when a certain Democratic senator from Texas blasted him into orbit in a vice presidential debate.
Jeb Bush became Dan Quayle:
This will be seen as the week when Jeb Bush lost credibility as a potential president. Whether his ample supply of donors ask for refunds or not, presidential stature is something that money cannot buy.
Jeb had his Murphy Brown moment, as Slate’s Josh Voorhees explains here:
Jeb Bush on Thursday gave his fourth answer in as many days to the question of whether, with the benefit of hindsight, he would have invaded Iraq in 2003 if he were president then instead of his brother. “If we’re all supposed to answer hypothetical questions: Knowing what we know now, what would you have done?” Bush said at a campaign event in Arizona. “I would have not engaged. I would not have gone into Iraq.”
His remarks capped a week full of stumbles, hedges, and full-on dodges by a candidate who is seen as the closest thing to a front-runner in a crowded field of Republican hopefuls, in no small part because of the massive fundraising advantages provided by his family’s political dynasty.
Jeb picked the wrong fight:
The whole thing started Monday, when Bush told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly that he would have authorized the invasion. On Tuesday the former Florida governor backpedaled, saying that he misheard the question and did not know what he would have done. And on Wednesday he went into a defensive crouch, saying he wouldn’t answer such hypotheticals.
The if-you-knew-then question, meanwhile, posed no such problems for the rest of the GOP field. Among those who came out with a definitive answer in the time it took for Jeb to settle on one of his own were: Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, and John Kasich. All said that they wouldn’t have authorized the invasion knowing what they do now.
“I don’t know how that was a hard question,” Santorum said following Bush’s final reversal. The former Pennsylvania senator, who voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq, added: “I’ve been asked that question a hundred times. The answer is pretty clear. The information was not correct and, while there were some things that were true, I don’t think nearly the weight to require us to go to war. Everybody accepts that now.”
That’s why everyone agrees on this:
Bush’s prolonged unwillingness to second-guess the war in hindsight was almost as remarkable as his complete lack of foresight that such a question was coming. The Iraq war – which had an American death toll of more than 4,400 and a U.S. price tag of at least $1.7 trillion – was a defining element of George W. Bush’s presidency, and still hangs over U.S. foreign policy today. Jeb and his army of foreign policy advisers should have known it was something he’d have to address eventually. That the campaign was unprepared to deal with the specter of the faulty intelligence that was used to justify the invasion suggests that Bush still hasn’t figured out whether he wants to run toward his brother’s legacy or away from it. As this week illustrated, he better make up his mind soon, because his GOP rivals aren’t going to allow him to do both.
The New York Times’ Gail Collins puts it this way:
I’m really troubled by his awful performances, and I’m generally a person who takes bad news about politicians pretty well. For instance, a friend just sent me a story about the Texas agriculture commissioner’s vow to bring deep-fried foods back to school cafeterias. (“It’s not about French fries; it’s about freedom.”) I would classify this as interesting, yet somehow not a shocking surprise.
But today we’re talking about Jeb Bush. As a presidential hopeful, Bush’s most attractive feature was an aura of competence. Extremely boring competence, perhaps. Still, an apparent ability to get through the day without demonstrating truly scary ineptitude.
Then, about a week ago, The Washington Post reported that during a private meeting with rich Manhattan financiers, Bush announced that his most influential adviser on Middle Eastern matters was his brother George.
This was a surprise on many fronts. For one thing, Jeb had apparently missed the memo on how everything you say to potential donors at private meetings can wind up on an endless YouTube loop for all eternity.
Also, he had begun his all-but-announced campaign for the presidency with an “I’m my own man” sales pitch. Now he was saying, in effect, “Well, I can always ask my brother.”
This would not go well:
Then, on Monday, Fox News aired an interview in which host Megyn Kelly asked Jeb whether “knowing what we know now” he would have authorized the invasion of Iraq.
“I would have, and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody,” Bush replied.
Now no one, including Hillary Clinton’s worst enemy in the entire world, thinks that if she could go back in time to 2002, knowing that the invasion of Iraq was going to be a total disaster and that she would lose the presidential nomination in 2008 to a guy who ran on that very issue, she would still have voted to authorize the use of force.
Given that, we have another Dan Quayle on our hands:
The bottom line is that so far he seems to be a terrible candidate. He couldn’t keep his “I’m-my-own-man” mantra going through the spring. He over-babbled at a private gathering. He didn’t know how to answer the Iraq question, which should have been the first thing he tackled on the first day he ever considered that he might someday think for even a minute about running for president.
This is obviously a problem for the Bush camp, but it’s a big one for the nation’s army of concerned citizens, too. There are lots of Americans who are not going to vote Republican next year, but who nevertheless have found some comfort in the idea that Jeb Bush would almost certainly be the Republican nominee.
They might disagree with him on a lot of issues, but at least he wasn’t Ted Cruz.
That’s over now, but Josh Marshall argues that now Jeb’s problem has become a problem for the other Republican candidates:
Improbably, Jeb Bush’s run for president and painful bumbling have triggered, though by no means caused, a watershed moment in the country’s reckoning with the strategic blunder – and let’s just say it – self-inflicted catastrophe of the Iraq War.
It was one thing when John Kasich and Chris Christie said they would not have invaded Iraq – guys who would run as relative moderates and either aren’t running or don’t realize they’re not running for president. (Rand Paul said the same but that’s no surprise.) But now we have Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz saying they would not have either. Rubio is the big tell here since he among all the 2016 contenders is angling for the support of the neoconservative foreign policy intelligentsia. If he can say categorically that it was a mistake, the debate is probably really finally over.
This had to happen eventually:
From one perspective, this may not seem surprising. With everything that has happened over the last dozen years, including events of just the last year, it’s very hard to say that the invasion was a good idea. But people say lots of things that are either hard or downright ridiculous to say. Indeed, we should note that as recently as two months ago, Rubio was saying just the opposite, that invading Iraq was the right thing to do.
Certainly part of this is that everybody in the race has an immediate incentive to inflict as much damage on Jeb Bush as possible. But it goes well beyond that. Iraq has loomed large over every aspect of US politics and foreign policy for more than a decade. But the specific decision to launch the war was submerged for many years. In the years just after the war, support for the war was an article of faith for most Republicans. That fixed much of the public debate in place. Many elected Democrats, meanwhile, were trapped by their own votes in favor of Bush’s authorization to use force.
Later, Republicans moved the debate to the ‘surge’, where they did have a much better argument to make. Even though it didn’t change the big picture, many Democrats didn’t think the surge could work. But in the limited sense of tamping down the out-of-control insurgency through a mix of an intensified troop presence and payola to tribal leaders in Sunni regions of the country, violence did abate significantly. It created an opening for a political solution, which never ended up happening and perhaps could never happen. In the 2008 presidential race, the Iraq ‘debate’ was largely fought over who was right about the surge.
Since then, the fights of the Obama era pushed the Iraq debate to the sidelines. Public opinion has turned decisively against the war. But political fights have largely been fought over ISIS, whether there should have been a full pull-out from Iraq, chaos in Syria, Libya and Yemen and more.
But now, Jeb has left them nowhere to hide:
We all sort of know that the ground has shifted on this issue. We can see it clearly in public opinion polls. But it is as though it’s been years since we actually had a show of hands – especially among national Republicans. Good idea? Bad idea? … What I’ve called that showing of hands seems to show virtually no one of any consequence standing up for the decision to invade. Maybe we all kind of knew that that was where people had gotten to. But seeing people say it is a transformative event.
It’s about time for that transformative event:
Over that time, the ground has shifted not just on the facts of the issue, but on what is in many ways a more consequential front: Time has passed and Republicans simply don’t feel the same sort of partisan responsibility for the conflict. It’s drifting back into history. The sense of ideological and partisan commitment has just loosened – the intuitive reflex that says our guy did it so it must be right and I need to defend it. …
Yes, each candidate has an incentive based on this race. But Cruz and Rubio especially are fighting for base Republicans. If they were still committed to the wisdom of the Iraq War, they wouldn’t be saying this. And yet they are. That is a major watershed in the country’s reckoning with the war. If Republicans running as hawks say it was a mistake, then the debate is really over.
Some folks have finally admitted they were wrong. But Paul Krugman doesn’t see it that way:
Earlier this year Mr. Bush released a list of his chief advisers on foreign policy, and it was a who’s-who-of-mistake-makers, people who played essential roles in the Iraq disaster and other debacles.
Seriously, consider that list, which includes such luminaries as Paul Wolfowitz, who insisted that we would be welcomed as liberators and that the war would cost almost nothing, and Michael Chertoff, who as director of the Department of Homeland Security during Hurricane Katrina was unaware of the thousands of people stranded at the New Orleans convention center without food and water.
In Bushworld, in other words, playing a central role in catastrophic policy failure doesn’t disqualify you from future influence. If anything, a record of being disastrously wrong on national security issues seems to be a required credential.
That was a Bush mistake, but it’s also general mistake:
Voters, even Republican primary voters, may not share that view, and the past few days have probably taken a toll on Mr. Bush’s presidential prospects. In a way, however, that’s unfair. Iraq is a special problem for the Bush family, which has a history both of never admitting mistakes and of sticking with loyal family retainers no matter how badly they perform. But refusal to learn from experience, combined with a version of political correctness in which you’re only acceptable if you have been wrong about crucial issues, is pervasive in the modern Republican Party.
The issue for the modern Republican Party goes beyond Iraq, to economic policy:
If you look at the list of economists who appear to have significant influence on Republican leaders, including the likely presidential candidates, you find that nearly all of them agreed, back during the “Bush boom,” that there was no housing bubble and the American economic future was bright; that nearly all of them predicted that the Federal Reserve’s efforts to fight the economic crisis that developed when that nonexistent bubble popped would lead to severe inflation; and that nearly all of them predicted that Obamacare, which went fully into effect in 2014, would be a huge job-killer.
Given how badly these predictions turned out – we had the biggest housing bust in history, inflation paranoia has been wrong for six years and counting, and 2014 delivered the best job growth since 1999 – you might think that there would be some room in the GOP for economists who didn’t get everything wrong. But there isn’t. Having been completely wrong about the economy, like having been completely wrong about Iraq, seems to be a required credential.
Krugman can only explain that this way:
We’re witnessing the effects of extreme tribalism. On the modern right, everything is a political litmus test. Anyone who tried to think through the pros and cons of the Iraq war was, by definition, an enemy of President George W. Bush and probably hated America; anyone who questioned whether the Federal Reserve was really debasing the currency was surely an enemy of capitalism and freedom.
It doesn’t matter that the skeptics have been proved right. Simply raising questions about the orthodoxies of the moment leads to excommunication, from which there is no coming back. So the only “experts” left standing are those who made all the approved mistakes. It’s kind of a fraternity of failure: men and women united by a shared history of getting everything wrong, and refusing to admit it.
Ed Kilgore also comments on that fraternity of failure:
If Jeb Bush was ensnared in this comedy of errors about Iraq as the Republican nominee, he’d undoubtedly have his entire party’s support in fighting off the criticism and laughter and moving on. It’s a very self-forgiving community, after all. But this is happening at the worst possible time for him, when a gigantic presidential nominating field sees an opportunity to take him down several notches before he corners all the money in the world and starts spending it. Krugman’s right, though: the array of reactions might be even more revealing if Jeb was squirming over his brother’s economic policies. How many GOPers are willing to admit that knowing what we know now those were mistaken, too?
That’s a good question. They were wrong about more than Iraq. They were wrong about everything – but the only thing they’ll cop to at the moment is Iraq, and perhaps that’s progress. But that’s not enough. And we don’t need another Dan Quayle. One was enough.