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Can Bush Agree With Obama and Survive?

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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Does a Republican presidential candidate have to disagree with Barack Obama on foreign policy if he wants to be president?  

International relations scholar Dan Drezner is afraid so. Drezner liked what he heard from Jeb Bush on Russia, but thinks that's a problem -- for Bush. Why? Because there's practically no daylight between what the Republican candidate wants and what the Democratic president is doing with respect to Russia. And the one place Republicans don't want to be on any policy is where Obama is.

Using "perfectly sober and reasonable-sounding foreign policy language" risks putting them there. They can, as Drezner sees it, “sound crazy” on foreign policy -- or they can sound like Obama.

This doesn’t mean Republican candidates don't have room to attack Obama (and Hillary Clinton) if they forgo language that isn't sober or reasonable-sounding. After all, however responsible, mainstream and moderate his policies may be, Obama hasn’t succeeded in reining in Putin’s Russia or in solving messes in other parts of the world. (Are they good policies? That's a separate question from whether they are mainstream.)

But as long as Republican voters insist their politicians always do the opposite of what the president does, the party's candidates have an incentive to use language that can sound unreasonable to attack Obama's reasonableness. 

So what can Bush do, since he can't sound like Obama but is also no outlier on foreign policy? Drezner misses a third option: Invent an Obama who sounds nothing like the real one. That was Mitt Romney’s foreign-policy strategy in 2012 -- running against, for example, Obama’s mythical “apology tour.” This approach also explains the scandal version of Benghazi, which Republicans can't get enough of (while Libya as a real foreign-policy failure has been mostly ignored). Hinting that Obama was uninterested in saving U.S. lives, or even more darkly that he is on the side of terrorists, leaves Republicans with plenty of space to distance themselves from sounding "perfectly sober" on foreign policy.

Granted, not all of the candidates would go that far in their accusations. But expect more straw-man Obamas (and Hillary Clintons) from candidates who want to advocate a sensible course but don't want to sound anything like a Democrat. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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