Jeb Bush Enters 2016 Race, Keeping National Security at a Distance

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush takes the stage as he formally join the race for president, Monday, June 15, 2015, at Miami Dade College in Miami.

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Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush takes the stage as he formally join the race for president, Monday, June 15, 2015, at Miami Dade College in Miami.

Bush announced his candidacy with a promise to be the optimistic candidate of ‘Today and Tomorrow’ — and no word on his father’s and brother’s wars in the Middle East.

John Ellis Bush, better known as Jeb, entered the 2016 presidential race as expected on Monday in Miami, Florida, where he forged his own political career as a successful businessman and then two-time governor of the key battleground state. Like Hillary Clinton two days before him, Bush stressed his personal accomplishments rather than the family dynasty that launched him into the political spotlight, and notably avoided focusing on foreign policy, a fraught subject for the brother and son of two war-time presidents.

Bush sounded an optimistic note, promoting himself as the candidate of “Today and Tomorrow,” his campaign’s new slogan. But the baggage of his brother and father seemed to weigh on him. “Our country is on a very bad course,” he said. “The question for me is: What am I going to do about it? And I have decided. I am a candidate for president of the United States.” Amid cheers and off-script, he exhaled with an audible “whoo” that communicated grim resignation, a Here we go.

The question is inevitable: how will he distance himself from his brother’s unpopular foreign policy without repudiating his own family? Yet Bush has struggled to answer it.

On Monday, he quipped, “In this country of ours, the most improbable things can happen. Take that from a guy who met his first president on the day he was born, and his second on the day he was brought home from the hospital.” But in his first foreign policy speech as a prospective 2016 candidate in February, he emphasized, “For the record, one more time, I love my father and my brother. But I am my own man.”

Still, Bush has plumbed the deep donor network of his family and surrounded himself with his father and brother’s neocon advisors. For several days last month, he fumbled to answer whether he would’ve also invaded Iraq. He first told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, “I would have [authorized the invasion], and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody.”  

Last week, Bush travelled to Germany, Poland and Estonia, checking off the campaign rite of passage of a trip abroad to burnish security credentials in Europe. He spent much of his trip shaking his first at Vladimir Putin. “Who can doubt that Russia will do what it pleases if its aggression goes unanswered?” he said. He called for NATO to consider permanently stationing troops in Poland and Eastern Europe, a proposal members have previously rejected. Over the weekend, officials told the New York Times that the administration is considering stationing enough heavy military equipment in the region to support as many as 5,000 American troops.

Though Bush’s trip received mixed reviews, it ultimately was largely deemed a success compared to the international trips of rivals such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Bush’s campaign staff emphasized that despite more than a decade between his last run and little national security experience, he’s made 89 trips to 22 countries since leaving the governor’s office. Spokesman Tim Miller told Defense One, “Governor Bush [is] the type of person not to shirk from issues.”

Bush looked to be losing steam going into his announcement, after shakeups at the top of his campaign staff, reports that he’ll fall short of his much-touted $100 million fundraising benchmark by the end of this month, and a recent surge in polls by former protégé Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who is positioning himself as commander-in-chief material with his short national security resume.

Though Rubio sent out a welcome note to Bush ahead of his afternoon speech, calling him a friend, the governor had pointed remarks for his rival GOP candidates hailing from the Senate.

“There’s no passing off responsibility when you’re a governor, no blending into the legislative crowd or filing an amendment and calling that success,” Bush said. “As our whole nation has learned since 2008, executive experience is another term for preparation, and there is no substitute for that.”

Bush’s announcement came two days after Hillary Clinton, another heir to a political dynasty, similarly presented herself as a fighter. Bush lost his first run for governor in 1994 but came back to win it in 1998. Clinton lost to then-Sen. Barack Obama for the 2008 Democratic nomination, but went on to serve as his first secretary of state. Now she is the presumptive Democratic nominee. Yet she too just touched on foreign policy and national security in her relaunch speech.

Rather than focus on Obama like much of the GOP field, Bush on Monday directed much of his criticism at Clinton. He said Democrats plan a “no-change election” and “to slog on with the same agenda under another name.”

“From the beginning, our president and his foreign-policy team have been so eager to be the history makers that they have failed to be the peacemakers,” Bush continued. “With their phone-it-in foreign policy, the Obama-Clinton-Kerry team is leaving a legacy of crises uncontained, violence unopposed, enemies unnamed, friends undefended, and alliances unraveling.”

Though he pledged in March not to “fake anger to placate people’s angst,” he placed the Islamic State’s brutal rise on the White House doorstep. “Americans don’t need lectures on the Middle Ages when we are dealing abroad with modern horrors committed by fanatics,” he said.

And Bush, like virtually every speech by every candidate, including Clinton, checked the boxes of increasing defense spending, veterans’ care, and Israeli reassurances. “This supposedly risk-averse administration is also running us straight in the direction of the greatest risk of all – military inferiority,” he said. “It will go on automatically until a president steps in to rebuild our armed forces and take care of our troops and our veterans.”

Defense spending skyrocketed with the wars President George W. Bush started in Iraq and Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, and military personnel costs have ballooned. Military officials want to bring those costs down and have asked Congress to make reforms to do so. Even with the budget caps enacted by Congress, Obama still spends more on the military than Bush did during much of his administration, Todd Harrison, senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, told Politifact.

Such statements cater to current Republican voter priorities. An early May NBC News/WSJ poll found that twice as many Republicans as Democrats (27 percent versus 13 percent) view terrorism and national security as the most important issues in the 2016 election.

“I know that there are good people running for president. Quite a few, in fact,” Bush joked. “And not a one of us deserves the job by right of resume, party, seniority, family, or family narrative. It’s nobody’s turn. It’s everybody’s test, and it’s wide open – exactly as a contest for president should be.”

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