And by “there” I mean Iraq:
Saturday night’s debate between the men who would like to be the next Republican president was sidetracked by a testy exchange over the last one. Donald Trump and Jeb Bush sparred over George W. Bush’s legacy in a battle that could have a real impact on the South Carolina primary.
“The war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake,” Trump said. “There were no weapons of mass destruction.” The billionaire then said that the WMD intelligence wasn’t just mistaken. “I want to tell you: they lied.”
“I am sick and tired of him going after my family,” Jeb Bush shot back. “When Donald Trump was building a reality TV show, my brother was building the security apparatus that kept us safe.” But Trump replied that George W. Bush didn’t keep the country safe from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In 2004 the invasion of Iraq was still popular, especially among Republicans. Since then it has been Banquo’s Ghost at GOP get togethers. The Democrats, on the other hand, love to talk about it.
Jeb’s whole candidacy is haunted by it. That’s why he has been sucking hind teat in the polls.
It’s not shocking that George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq would come up nearly 13 years after the fact; it pops up in Democratic debates these days, too. But the exchange between Trump and Jeb Bush over Iraq here Saturday night wasn’t just a passing reference. It was in some ways the debate Republicans mostly didn’t have back in 2004, when Democrats were consumed with the war. And here in Greenville, as has happened elsewhere in this campaign, the candidate named Bush had a hard time dealing with the subject.
The back-and-forth started when moderator John Dickerson brought up a 2008 interview with CNN in which Trump said he was surprised that Democrats had not impeached George W. Bush over the war, and that it would be “a wonderful thing” if they had.
On stage Saturday, Trump would not repeat what he said about impeachment — there are apparently limits even for Trump. But he did not hesitate to talk about Iraq. “Obviously, the war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake, all right?” Trump said. “We spent $2 trillion, thousands of lives, we don’t even have it. Iran has taken over Iraq with the second-largest oil reserves in the world.”
“George Bush made a mistake,” Trump continued. “We can make mistakes. But that one was a beauty. We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East.”
And finally: “They lied,” Trump said of the Bush administration. “They said there were weapons of mass destruction, there were none. And they knew there were none. There were no weapons of mass destruction.”
It’s not the first time Trump has said such things. But he was taking a risk, calculated or not, on saying them in South Carolina. George W. Bush remains popular among state Republicans. Perhaps that does not mean everything Bush did remains equally popular, but slamming the Republican former president so hard is a significant gamble for Trump.
On the other hand, Jeb Bush showed himself (again) unable to address Trump’s basic critique.
“I am sick and tired of him going after my family,” Bush said. “My dad is the greatest man alive, in my mind. And while Donald Trump was building a reality TV show, my brother was building a security apparatus to keep us safe. And I’m proud of what he did.”
Bush even brought his mother into it, defending her against Trump. “Look, I won the lottery when I was born 63 years ago, looked up, and I saw my mom,” Bush said. “My mom is the strongest woman I know.”
The my-mom-is-great argument might not the strongest possible defense of the decision to invade Iraq. To say that Bush didn’t fully engage with Trump would be an understatement.
Nor did Bush address Trump’s rebuttal to the “kept us safe” claim. “The World Trade Center came down during your brother’s reign, remember that,” Trump said. “That’s not keeping us safe.”
The howls of the GOPe could literally be heard all across the country when he said that.
Trump took a yuuge risk by going there. I’m gonna go on record and predict it will eventually be seen as a brilliant move and the coup de grace for Jeb.
I have always believed that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. I was in the minority at the time, but most Americans have come to agree with me. (FTR: I opposed our interventions in Libya, Syria and Egypt too.)
Saddam Hussein was truly an evil man, and his sons may well have been worse. The world is a better place without them in it. But when we invaded Iraq we set in motion things we could neither predict nor control. (ISIS is one of the consequences, but Barack Obama gets some of the blame for that.)
Just as we did with Vietnam, eventually we have to face the truth about Iraq. It’s not about assigning blame, it’s about learning from our mistakes.