Jeb Bush addresses the 2015 Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Oklahoma City on May 22.

Is Our Politicians Learning?

The most formidable challenger for Jeb Bush is his own brother’s legacy.

BY Susan J. Douglas

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When a college kid at a town hall meeting asserts that your brother helped create ISIS, you’re in trouble.

In mid-May, Jeb Bush, following in the family tradition, found himself with his foot in his mouth. Asked by Fox News host Megyn Kelly, “Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the [Iraq] invasion?” he replied, “I would have. And so would have Hillary Clinton.” As multiple media outlets instantly howled, this was not a good answer, given what we, in fact, know now: The $2 trillion exercise in “shock and awe” was a colossal and deadly disaster with ongoing horrendous consequences. Bush spent days trying to walk this one back, stumbling along the way with varying degrees of dazzling failure.

Given that the most formidable candidate Jeb Bush may be running against is his own brother’s legacy, other “knowing what we know now” questions might be asked.

For example, knowing what we know now, was it such a good idea for George W. Bush to enact two major tax cuts, totaling about $1.5 trillion, that especially benefited the wealthiest Americans? You know, on things like capital gains and estates, which stoked massive income inequality in our country? The cuts that helped turn the surplus inherited from Bill Clinton into a massive government deficit we’ll be living with for years—at a time when spending on infrastructure like bridges, dams, roads and levees is so pathetic that the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2013 gave the country a D+ grade?

Knowing what we know now, was it politically smart to alienate women through a series of anti-choice initiatives, like reinstituting the Global Gag Rule, which cut off U.S. funds to any family planning agency that dared mention abortion as an option for an unwanted pregnancy, even in desperately poor countries where another mouth to feed can mean starvation? And was it so astute to further piss off women in 2005 by seeking to weaken schools’ Title IX requirements, which provide equal opportunities for female athletes? Or to prompt outcry by posting bogus information on the National Cancer Institute’s website suggesting a link between abortion and breast cancer? Remember when Obama beat McCain by 14 points with women and Romney by 12 points?

Knowing what we know now about climate change— and indeed, what we knew back then—would you have withdrawn from the Kyoto Protocol, postponing for years crucial action to lower greenhouse gas emissions? Your brother’s own appointee as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Christine Todd Whitman, later said that this was like “flipping the bird” to the rest of the world. She might have added: and to your children and grandchildren.

Knowing what we know now, would you have ignored a 2001 intelligence briefing titled “Bin Laden determined to strike in the U.S.”?

Knowing what we know now, was it totally cool to abandon the Geneva conventions and practice “enhanced interrogation,” aka torture, now that it looks like it didn’t produce information, but did greatly inflame Islamic militants’ hatred of us? And is hindsight really required to realize that torture is morally repugnant?

Knowing what we know now— that the Patriot Act allowed for massive domestic surveillance—was it such a great idea to authorize the NSA to spy on everyday Americans, monitoring their phone calls and emails?

Knowing what we know now, would you have appointed John Roberts as Chief Justice and Sam Alito to the Supreme Court? The Roberts court may be the worst in history, and these are two of the folks who gave us Citizens United, which turned money into speech and corporations into people. And it might just be the case, Jeb, that the Koch brothers or Marco Rubio’s billionaire buddy Norman Braman may use their “speech” to buy someone else more to their liking for president.

The thing is, your brother has been ranked one of the worst presidents in U.S. history by U.S. News and World Report, with historian Sean Wilentz calling him, simply, a “colossal historical disgrace.” When a college kid at a town hall meeting asserts that your brother helped create ISIS, you’re in trouble.

That is who, and what, you’re running against: the shadow of your brother and an appalling and despicable legacy we hope is never repeated. 

Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and an In These Times columnist. Her latest book is Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work is Done (2010).

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