At 12:30 pm on Wednesday, Jeb Bush is scheduled to give his first major speech on foreign policy as a 2016 candidate. This is an important moment for Bush: though he's otherwise in a strong position in the race, he conspicuously lacks any experience, or a defining worldview, on foreign policy.
A look at his past comments, as well as some sparse excerpts from the speech, suggest he'll take a position well inside the Republican mainstream — embracing hawkish and neoconservative similar to those of his brother, George W. Bush, whose record on world affairs sent him limping out of office with 34 percent approval rating.
This is a smart play. It might seem like Jeb should run from his brother's ideas ahead of the GOP presidential primary — especially since he's expected to be flanked by Sen. Rand Paul, whose non-interventionist approach seems like it should appeal to a war-weary public. But there's plenty of evidence that when it comes to foreign policy, the Republican Party is ready for a retread — not a rethink.
Jeb Bush has an unbroken history of hawkishness
Bush doesn't talk a whole lot about foreign policy. But everything he's said for about the past 20 years suggests he's in the neoconservative camp.
In 1997, Bush was one of 25 people to sign the Project for the New American Century's Statement of Principles, along with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. The statement called for conservatives to oppose "isolationist impulses," and embrace "a foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American principles abroad."
His scattered remarks since suggest he hasn't changed much. Bush's comments have hit the generically hawkish and internationalist notes you hear from virtually all mainstream Republican candidates.
Take his December 2014 address to the US Cuba Democracy PAC in Florida. Bush blamed crises around the world on Obama's unwillingness to follow up words with aggressive American action. "Think of the ‘Russian reset.’ Think of the ‘Syrian red line.’ Think of the ‘pivot to Asia.’ Think of taking out ISIS," he said. "In this unstable and uncertain world, the United States has actually played a part in creating greater instability and greater unraveling."
This line — that Obama is weak, and doesn't follow through on his promises — is pretty boilerplate GOP rhetoric. It signals general support for a more aggressive American foreign policy than Obama's, but doesn't tie Bush to any specific policies.
As Michael Crowley's excellent Politico profile of Bush documents, this middle-of-the-road neoconservatism has been Bush's standard approach for since the PNAC document. "I don’t think there’s anything out of the mainstream of that part of the party," Gary Schimtt, an American Enterprise Institute scholar, told Crowley. Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice are both avowed Jeb fans.
The excerpts from today's speech suggest he'll hew to similar lines. "The great irony of the Obama Presidency is this: Someone who came to office promising greater engagement with the world has left America less influential in the world," Bush will say. "The United States has an undiminished ability to shape events and build alliances of free people. We can project power and enforce peaceful stability in far-off areas of the globe."
Why Jeb doesn't have a Bush problem
But doesn't this mean Bush has a last name problem? A huge majority — 71 percent, according to one June 2014 poll — think the Iraq war was still a mistake. There's no way the American public will elect a hawkish Bush given how they feel the last one turned out. Indeed, the speech excerpts make it seem like Jeb recognizes this. "I love my father and my brother. I admire their service to the nation and the difficult decisions they had to make," Jeb will say. "But I am my own man, and my views are shaped by my own thinking and own experiences,"
This pro forma language won't trick anyone into missing the similarities between his views and his brothers'. But it doesn't matter. Bush will probably pay almost no electoral costs for running on a standard Republican platform, even though it'll sound a lot like George W. Bush's foreign policy. That's true in both the primary and the general.
First, as far as the primary race goes, there's basically no evidence Republican voters are going to punish Bush for his brother's foreign policy. 88 percent of Republicans remember W. fondly today. Moreover, Republican public opinion has taken a hawkish turn since the ISIS crisis began. In November 2013, only 16 percent said America was doing "too little" to solve the world's crises; by August 2014, that number was 46 percent, a plurality.
Plus, Jeb isn't the only hawkish candidate in the field, or even the most hawkish. Ultra-hawks like Sen. Lindsey Graham, Rep. Peter King, and former UN Ambassador John Bolton are all thinking about running just to attack Rand Paul on foreign policy. Among more viable candidates, Marco Rubio has been far more outspoken on foreign policy than Bush has. If GOP voters are looking to punish someone for being too interventionist, there's no reason to think they'll pick on Bush.
But what about the general election? Once again, that's not clear. 53 percent of all Americans have a favorable view of George W. Bush. Ex-presidents are always remembered more fondly than they were viewed in office, so there probably isn't that much of a W. millstone to hang around Jeb's neck among the general electorate.
More importantly, general election voters just don't care very much about foreign policy. In the 2012 election, about 4-5 percent of voters cited foreign policy as their top issue. That's fairly typical. Americans care much more about domestic issues, particularly the economy, than America's policies abroad.
That's not always true, of course. In both 2006 and 2008, Americans punished Republicans for the Iraq war. The Civil War, World War II, and Vietnam — shockingly — all mattered.
Those wars have one macabre thing in common: large numbers of American casualties. Major foreign wars impact American lives in the same tangible way that the economy and social issues do. Lesser conflicts, like the ISIS war or Libya intervention, don't.
The big thing that hurt W. Bush politically was what he did, not what he said. In fact, Bush ran on what he called a "humble" foreign policy. "I’m not so sure the role of the United States is to go around the world and say this is the way it’s got to be," Bush said in an October debate against then-Vice President Al Gore. "I’m worried about over committing our military around the world."
As in 2000, the likeliest 2016 Democratic nominee will be a relative hawk. Hillary Clinton voted for the Iraq war in the Senate; as Secretary of State, she advocated for more aggressive action in Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria. In 2014, her rhetoric on foreign policy has been so aggressive that the neoconservative Weekly Standard simply reprinted quotes from her as an in-house editorial. Clinton isn't equipped to run as a non-interventionist, and doesn't want to.
So unless there's a major crisis in the last two years of the Obama administration, voters simply won't care very much about Jeb Bush's foreign policy philosophy — even if he's promising to be the second coming of George W. Bush. And in the event of a crisis, Clinton would have a tough time tacking to Jeb's non-interventionist left.
Toeing the conventionally hawkish line plays to Bush's strengths
In all likelihood, being aggressive on foreign policy will actually help Bush win the nomination. Here's why.
Foreign policy doesn't matter much in the general election, but it's really important in the Republican primary. Because primaries are won by building coalitions inside the party, leading GOP officials, activists and donors play a huge role in determining who wins. These elites care a lot about world affairs, so Jeb needs to persuade them he's at least minimally capable of running American foreign policy if he wants the nomination.
The best way to do that is to sound exactly like a conventional Republican. The GOP establishment hasn't gotten less hawkish since the last Bush administration. If anything, it's gotten more aggressive in response to Obama's generally restrained approach to world politics.
Neoconservatives dominate virtually every major conservative think tank and media organization. Precious few elected Republicans, party activists, or donors seriously buck the interventionist orthodoxy.
Telling these constituencies what they want to hear — Obama has fallen down on the job, America needs to lead, I'll take on Iran and Russia — is the safe bet. Jeb, a smart guy and a polished speaker, probably won't have any trouble selling this standard message persuasively. Key figures, like casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, have already signaled comfort with Jeb's approach to world affairs.
Moreover, there's simply no incentive for Jeb to distinguish himself on foreign policy. Bush's appeal stems from his record as governor in Florida and a reputation for competent, but conventional, conservatism. Taking anything but standard positions on foreign policy will distract from the domestic policy issues he'll try using to distinguish himself from the pack.
So when Jeb Bush gives his speech on foreign policy next week, don't expect him to turn his back on his brother. In all likelihood, Jeb will be running on something a lot like W.'s platform.