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Jeb Bush’s Bumbling On Iraq May Hurt Him Later Rather Than Sooner

Jeb Bush is having a bad week. He can’t quite figure out what to say about the Iraq War. First he said he would have authorized the invasion given what he knows now. Then he said he misunderstood the question. Later, Bush said he wouldn’t talk about hypotheticals. Now, he claims he wouldn’t have engaged in the war. Other Republicans have said that they would not have invaded Iraq, and Bush is getting hammered for his changing positions in the media. But will he pay a political price? Short term: no. Long term: maybe?

Among Republican primary voters, Bush’s initial answer of “yes” on the war is mildly unpopular. In an October 2014 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, 49 percent said that going to Iraq wasn’t worth it. That’s more than the percentage who said it was worth it (41 percent), but not by a ton. A March 2013 ABC News/Washington Post poll showed the opposite split: 52 percent of Republicans and independents who lean Republican said the war was worth it, and 42 percent said it wasn’t.1 Most polling from 2011 to 2012 shows a roughly even split among Republicans on the cost of the Iraq War.

Also of note: The Iraq War is not at the top of most voters’ minds. If it were, Hillary Clinton might be having more problems on the Democratic side. Instead, just 16 percent of Americans, according to a March 2015 CNBC survey, said “foreign policy, world leadership and combating terrorism” are the issues they care most about right now. Only a small fraction of those 16 percent are likely focused on Iraq, considering that the U.S. is also dealing with Iran, Islamic State, and Syria, among other hot spots.

So the Iraq War is just mildly unpopular among Republicans, and it’s not on voters’ minds — Bush should be able to weather any immediate storm that his comments kicked up.

The problem that Bush faces is the general electorate. Only 26 percent of all Americans in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll said going to Iraq was worth it. Of course, it’s not just about the war in isolation. The big issue is that it’s Bush’s brother’s war. Jeb Bush continues to have a big problem because he’s the brother of the most unpopular president in recent history. An April 2015 Fox News poll found that 58 percent of voters said that being related to a former president was a disadvantage for Bush. By not giving a clear answer on Iraq, Bush will allow others to wrap him in his brother’s unpopular foreign policy legacy — a legacy that helped lead to a Democratic president in 2008.

For a relatively moderate candidate like Bush, his entire primary campaign is built around electability (for example, look at his position on immigration reform). Electability is a good strategy, but Bush’s waffling position on Iraq could undermine it. Donors and the all-important party actors might react negatively to Bush’s apparent inability to stand up to the type of heat he’ll face in the general election. Bush’s reaction to the controversy sparked by his comments was far less smooth than the reaction of his fellow Republicans to Bush’s comments: They came out against the war right away. For them, it’s a no-brainer given that the war’s greatly unpopular with the general electorate and not all that popular among the Republican base. If Bush stumbles on his answer in the future, you can expect his fellow Republicans to hammer him in the coming months.

The good news for Bush is that it’s only the middle of May in the year before the primaries and general election. We’re still more than two months away from the first debate. Because the Iraq War isn’t a top issue and isn’t a deal-breaker among Republicans, Bush has time to refine his answer. We already see him doing so.

Footnotes

  1. Looking at just Republicans without leaners, the war was more popular, with 57 percent saying it was worth it.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

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