Sometimes it feels as if Jeb Bush is trying to do us a favor.
By running for president and being so unabashedly terrible at it, he’s providing the opportunity for an emotional catharsis about the lingering garbage barge fire known as the George W. Bush presidency — and a real discussion about the Republican Party’s continued embrace of Bush’s failed policies.
Whoever the Republican nominee is, he — we can say “he” — will be accused of running for W.’s third term.
This isn’t just a convenient talking point or the sort of politics of “You actually own that failure” that saw Democrats running against Herbert Hoover for decades. It’s a fact that every major Republican candidate is running on some form of the tax cuts that favor the rich, climate change denial, and militaristic approach to the Middle East that defined Bush’s presidency. The only substantive divergence from Bush II by the GOP field is that they say they’d spend less — meaning they oppose the only policy that led to a net creation of jobs in Bush’s eight years.
But with Jeb’s poll numbers falling like the stock market in 2008, the former governor of Florida — who gifted W. the presidency in 2000 — has decided that his brother’s record is his life raft. George W. Bush is far more popular with the Republican base (and America) than his older brother. The base likes that he appointed two pro-life Justices, leaving us just one appointment away from the reversal of Roe v. Wade. The broader public likes that George W. Bush is retired.
Jeb isn’t just basing his campaign on the peak of the economic bubble that inflated under his brother’s watch; he is sticking with the “He kept us safe” talking point that the younger Bush debuted at the 2012 Republican National Convention and recently won his only enthusiastic applause at the last Republican debate, in rebuttal to Donald Trump.
Jeb uttered the same “He kept us safe” riposte to Trump again last week. It’s a bizarrely absurd talking point that demands ridicule. And being attacked by the left is Jeb’s only hope of somehow becoming a favorite of the right.
Unfortunately for him, a GOP frontrunner with nothing to lose is leading the attack against W.’s record, so Jeb’s strategy is failing, much to the amusement of anyone who isn’t a partisan Republican.
It’s actually nice to see the GOP having the debate about how terrible George W. Bush’s presidency was that the rest of America finished years ago. It’s a welcome opportunity to remind people how unsafe the presidency of George W. Bush was, in hope that someday Republicans will formulate policies that work.
Here are 5 ways our previous president did not keep us safe.
1. 9/11 actually happened (plus anthrax attacks).
New research suggests that George W. Bush was actually president before, during and after 9/11, when four American airliners were hijacked as terrorists killed nearly 3,000 people. Politifact hasn’t verified it yet, but a calendar suggests that it’s at least “mostly true.” In August before the attacks, Bush received the now famous “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US” memo, which he characterized as “ass covering” by the CIA. Bush also sidelined Richard Clarke, who had championed counterterrorism under Bill Clinton. While Bush deserves some credit for displaying far more respect for Islam than much of the current Republican field, his suspension of due process, his embrace of torture, and his administration’s creation of Guantanamo Bay prison all furthered the notion that America was blindly waging a new “crusade.” Oh yeah, in the aftermath of 9/11, American was further terrorized by anthrax attacks that killed 5. Those murders have still not been solved.
2. Failing to complete the job in Afghanistan.
The immediate success of the war in Afghanistan suggested that all the warnings about that country being the “graveyard of empires” were overblown. With the help of local troops in the Northern Alliance, the Taliban was quickly deposed, with U.S. troops then a minimal presence. However, much of the Taliban took sanctuary in Pakistan to lie in wait, as American forces missed their chance to take on Osama Bin Laden and his closest supporters at Tora Bora. A decade and half later, this is now our longest war, with U.S. troops still dying there and little hope of them returning home in the near future. While the light footprint of the invasion looked smart initially, we soon learned that the strategy behind it seemed to have little to do with containing America’s war making — and far more to do with launching America’s first aggressive war in generations.
3. Invading Iraq.
“While the Pentagon was still burning, Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld was in the White House suggesting an attack against Baghdad,” Richard Clarke wrote in 2009. The decision to invade Iraq having been made by the Bush Administration, the only remaining task was to come up with a justification. After failing to connect 9/11 to Saddam Hussein, the impetus became the supposed danger posed by his alleged weapons of mass destruction. And when that case crumbled, the justification would morph again and again as every justification by the administration devolved into speciousness, then irrelevance. Like the invasion of Afghanistan, each stage of the Iraq invasion in which Saddam was deposed, captured, and executed was characterized as a “success,” despite the huge civilian casualties and lawlessness that ensued. Thousands of U.S. troops died and tens of thousands were severely wounded as this massive failure of common sense and decency destabilized the entire Middle East and empowered Iran — which was able to build and operate its first nuclear centrifuges during Bush’s second term.
4. Not securing the border.
If you’re Jeb Bush and the GOP base doesn’t trust you because you speak Spanish and occasionally support immigration reform, saying that your brother “kept us safe” shows how disconnected you are from Republican primary voters. The guys you need to win over don’t believe the border is safe now — although net immigration is zero — so how can you describe an era when millions crossed the border and came to stay in America as “safe?”
This is concern trolling, of course: Many undocumented immigrants come by plane legally and overstay visas. Regardless of how they get here, statistics show they’re far less likely to commit crimes than American citizens. But if Republicans want to argue Bush kept us safe with his one 9/11 and his huge increase in undocumented immigration, what about Obama with zero 9/11s and a net decrease in the undocumented.
5. Ignoring climate change.
What’s the greatest threat to a nation that shares no borders with a hostile enemy? How about a permanent invasion by the oceans, widespread drought, increasingly dangerous weather, and a destabilized globe? It’s not just Bernie Sanders saying climate change is a threat to our national security, it’s the military. Under Bush, the only policy our federal government adopted on climate change is that we shouldn’t try to prevent it. When California — under a Republican governor — attempted to regulate greenhouse gases, the administration tried to block him. By spreading science denial, advancing the agenda of the fossil fuel industries, and frustrating every effort to halt a manmade catastrophe, Bush made sure his legacy of not keeping us safe would linger on, possibly forever.
If Florida had counted every vote and Al Gore become president, would he have prevented 9/11?
We’ll never know. All we can say for sure is that George W. Bush didn’t prevent it. Perhaps he did his best and that’s all we can expect.
Even our greatest president Franklin D. Roosevelt would count the bombing of Pearl Harbor among his greatest failings — even if he didn’t invade the wrong country in response.
If Jeb Bush wants to argue that George W. Bush did a nice job of bringing America together and trying to avoid the demonization of Muslims in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there’s a case to be made. But W.’s record of “keeping us safe” in comparison to every other modern president is non-existent. Instead, it’s much easier to argue that he made us uniquely unsafe. And, in fact, that’s what Donald Trump is arguing — even as the billionaire promotes policies more irrational and belligerent than anything Bush and Cheney conjured.