Beating the Bushes

Daily Best of the Web   —   Posted on February 18, 2016

Beating the Bushes

The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at The Wall Street Journal written by the editor, James Taranto.

Beating the Bushes
Watching this year’s presidential campaign is like washing your hair: blather, rinse, repeat. Donald Trump says something outrageous; right-thinking people denounce him for it, usually rightly, and expect him to lose support; he doesn’t, and the cycle begins anew.

The latest example is an especially nasty exchange he had with Jeb Bush in Saturday’s debate. Moderator John Dickerson kicked it off by asking Trump about a 2008 interview in which Trump said George W. Bush should have been impeached because “he lied, he got us into the [Iraq] war with lies.” Dickerson: “Do you still believe President Bush should have been impeached?”

Trump didn’t give a direct answer, instead denouncing Jeb Bush for equivocating back in May as to whether he would have authorized the war:

He went back [and forth], it was a mistake, it wasn’t a mistake. It took him five days before his people told him what to say, and he ultimately said, “It was a mistake.” The war in Iraq, we spent $2 trillion, thousands of lives, we don’t even have it. Iran has taken over Iraq with the second-largest oil reserves in the world. Obviously, it was a mistake.

Jeb Bush asked for an opportunity to respond, and Trump repeated the slander: “You do whatever you want. You call it whatever you want. I want to tell you. They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction, there were none. And they knew there were none. There were no weapons of mass destruction.” (That quote is erroneously attributed to Dickerson in the transcript at the link.) Then Jeb got his response, more on which below.

Bush-administration veterans were justifiably outraged. “He sounds like a liberal Democrat to me,” Dick Cheney told Fox News’s Bret Baier. “For Mr. Trump to suggest that . . . is way off base. He clearly doesn’t understand or has not spent any time learning about the facts of that period.”

In a Commentary blog post, former White House aide Peter Wehner debunked Trump’s “grotesque claim” and opined: “It is more urgent than ever that Republicans speak out against Donald Trump.” And in a Washington Post column Marc Thiessen, who served as a speechwriter in Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon and later the White House, called Trump’s comment “uninformed left-wing claptrap” that “puts Trump to the left of even Nancy Pelosi.”

Thiessen is hopeful though uncertain that Trump will prove to have hurt his cause:

If there is any state where such rantings should backfire on Trump, it is South Carolina. Jeb Bush may be polling at about 10 percent there, but George W. Bush remains the most popular Republican in the Palmetto State. A poll two months ago found that the former president had 84 percent approval among South Carolina Republicans. . . .

Will any of this translate into votes? Trump had a 20-point lead in South Carolina going into Saturday’s debate, so it remains to be seen whether he will pay a price.

An unnamed member of Politico’s “Insiders” panel is more confident:

“Trump lost any chance to grow his base with his mean-spirited performance,” a South Carolina Republican said of Trump, the current poll-leader in that state one week from the primary. “He may still receive a quarter of the vote on February 20, but he will fall far below polling expectations. Trump’s attack on President George W. Bush was galactic-level stupid in South Carolina.”

Maybe; we’ll know in a few days. CNN reports its new South Carolina poll “suggests Trump’s support may have softened after Saturday’s debate”:

In interviews conducted before the debate, 40% backed Trump, compared with 31% who said they supported him after the raucous matchup between the remaining candidates in the field.

But the poll’s total sample was 404 likely Republican primary voters, and it was conducted over six days (Feb. 10-15), only two of which were after the debate. Assuming a roughly equal number of interviews were conducted on each day, that would put the postdebate sample size at a measly 135 or so. What’s more, 31% would still be a very respectable showing in a six-man field.

On more than one occasion this column has argued that seemingly crazy Trump statements can also appear savvy when viewed from a different perspective. Example: In November, when Trump apparently mocked the physical disability of a New York Times reporter, we observed that “his supporters are likely to see it not as bullying a man but as standing up to a powerful institution—the New York Times, or the liberal media more generally. . . . Trump is either punching down or punching up, depending on just whom or what you think he’s punching.”

For a clue as to why Trump’s attack on George W. Bush may not end up hurting him in South Carolina, let’s examine Jeb Bush’s response. “Here’s the deal,” he said. “I’m sick and tired of Barack Obama blaming my brother for all of the problems that he has had.”

Well, amen to that. This column has mocked Obama for years with our “We Blame George W. Bush” gag. Like the large majority of South Carolina Republicans, we hold a favorable view of the former president. We think he gets a bum rap for the Iraq effort—which we suppose we should acknowledge we strongly supported at the time, and which might have turned out far better had Obama not withdrawn the U.S. military in 2011.

On the other hand, there is no denying that Iraq ended disastrously, however one apportions the blame. Further, the Bush presidency ended disastrously for Republicans. The loss of the congressional majorities in 2006 can be laid in substantial part to the public’s turning against the Iraq war, and so can Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 with coattails that briefly produced a filibuster-proof Senate majority, making ObamaCare possible.

Thanks to Obama’s overreach, Republicans have since staged an impressive comeback. But from a conservative Republican standpoint, the past seven years have nonetheless been characterized by one setback after another; the Republican congressional majorities can do little more than limit the damage.

It’s possible that many Republican voters admire George W. Bush but also see his political legacy as a burden from which they would like to be freed, and thus are simultaneously repelled and attracted by Trump’s denunciations of him. That’s unfair to Jeb Bush, a capable public servant in his own right who might be a very good president. But nobody ever said politics was fair.

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