By Jim Antle, February 13, 2016
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.
It's not the first time Trump has hit the former president for invading Iraq and being in office during the 9/11 terrorist attacks or the former Florida governor has defended his brother. The two had a similar argument at a Republican debate in September without hurting Trump's poll numbers.
"Your brother and your brother's administration gave us Barack Obama because it was such a disaster those last three months Abraham Lincoln couldn't have been elected," Trump said at the time. Bush replied that his brother kept America safe. Trump scoffed, "I don't feel so safe."
But that debate was months before voting started. This passionate back-and-forth occurred right before the South Carolina primary, a conservative, military-friendly state where the former president remains popular, right as Bush 43 is re-engaging in the political process by making a campaign appearance with his brother Monday. The debate crowd booed Trump, which South Carolinians watching on television could hear at home.
This is a big risk for Trump to assume that the Republican Party is so ready to turn the page on George W. Bush and Iraq that primary voters will support a candidate who effectively repeated the antiwar slogan of the time, "Bush lied, people died."
Marco Rubio also defended George W. Bush's foreign policy and no one quite weighed in on Trump's side, although Ted Cruz has sometimes criticized the Iraq war.
In 2007, Rudy Giuliani and Ron Paul had a similarly heated exchange over the Iraq War and 9/11 that led to the Texas congressman being booed and the former New York City mayor being cheered. The long-term results were more complicated: the moment generated enthusiasm among Paul's supporters while Giuliani's campaign faded.
Giuliani ultimately ran behind Paul in South Carolina in 2008, though neither man did particularly well in the primary.
But Paul never led in the South Carolina polling as Trump has for weeks. And while he gained an audience for his non-interventionist views, they were far from the majority position inside the GOP.
Both Trump and Jeb Bush were spoiling for a fight. Bush wants to be seen as the candidate most willing to take on Trump. One of his New Hampshire ads emphasized him standing up to "the bully" Trump before mentioning he had a plan to defeat the Islamic State. Trump, on the other hand, loves to mix it up with Bush because he frequently gets the better of him. Trump's "low energy" barb about Bush has dogged the former Florida governor.
This time the fight between Trump and Bush was for more than alpha male bragging rights. It could be a major turning point in both men's candidacies and a major indication of where Republicans currently stand on a painful chapter in the party's recent history.
Jim Antle is a fellow at Defense Priorities and the Washington Examiner's politics editor. He was previously managing editor of the Daily Caller, associate editor of the American Spectator and senior writer for the American Conservative. His writing has appeared in Politico, The Week, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, National Interest, Reason and numerous other publications. Antle is the author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? (Regnery, 2013).
This piece was originally published by the Washington Examiner on February 13, 2016. Read more HERE.
Photo courtesy Gage Skidmore.