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Why Jeb Won't Throw Neocons Under the Bus

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Jeb Bush gave a foreign-policy address today in which he stated, “I am my own man.” He also rolled out a list of foreign-policy advisers, who turn out to be mostly from the two Bush administrations (as the Fix’s Philip Bump illustrates with a fun Venn diagram).

So which is it?

Ross Douthat tweets:

As Jamelle Bouie of Slate says, “By definition, a presidential nominee is not their 'own' person.”

This isn’t specifically about Jeb Bush, though as Bouie notes, it might be worse for him. It’s a problem for anyone who might be the first to follow a president from his party who was widely perceived as having failed in one area (or more). It was a problem for Jimmy Carter in foreign policy eight years after Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam, and a problem for Bill Clinton 12 years after Carter's record on just about everything.

Clinton’s solution was to use as few Carter people as possible. The result was a disaster: The original Clinton White House staff was notably lacking in White House experience, and the consequence was perhaps the worst transition in the modern presidency. Had Clinton been willing to find a few of the best people from the Carter years to mix in with the newcomers, it’s possible his first year could have been far more productive, and the midterm losses in 1994 less severe.

So Douthat is correct: Any new Republican president is going to draw from recent Republican presidents, and rightly so, despite the disasters of the George W. Bush administration. That’s because, as Bouie suggests, presidential nominations aren’t about individual candidates as much as they are about party decisions, with the winner adopting party positions and the party's governing professionals.

Don’t forget, too, that Bush is competing hard for the nomination now, and wants to show various party factions that they can be comfortable with him. A broad-based advisory team is part of that whether he intends to listen to all of them or not.

All that said: Presidential judgment matters, too. Any Republican president in 2002 was going to be surrounded by hawks eager to invade Iraq; George W. Bush was unusually easy to roll, and lax in pushing his national-security team about the holes in their plans.

So one thing to look for in a nominee is evidence that he’ll be good at challenging his team when they come to him with foolish ideas. A way to begin to get a sense of that is by determining who might be in the smaller group he or she is listening to.

Mostly, however, Jeb Bush's decision to include people who were calamitously wrong on Iraq as part of his foreign-policy team isn’t about him, or about the Bush family. It's about a Republican Party that still stubbornly refuses to accept that Iraq was a disaster. If I’m correct that Rand Paul doesn’t have any real chance of being nominated, then that’s going to be a problem for any of the viable Republican candidates.

  1. Carter might have had a worse transition than Clinton did, but Clinton easily wins the prize when you contrast those failures with the rest of the presidency.

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To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net