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The big question heading into Tuesday night’s Republican debate in Milwaukee was whether former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush would be able to deliver a performance strong enough to arrest his decline in the polls and turn his flagging campaign around. The previous debate did not go well for Bush; the next one is a full five weeks away. Without some sort of “moment” in Milwaukee, the thinking went, the perception of Bush as an also-ran would harden into reality, and it would be difficult, if not impossible, for him to recover.
Bush failed to create such a moment in Milwaukee. To understand why, it’s worth looking at how he missed the best opportunity he had all evening — and how he immediately let three of his rivals upstage him instead.
Bush’s opening came about halfway through the second hour of the debate. Pivoting from economic concerns to foreign policy, Fox Business moderator Maria Bartiromo asked the mogul Donald Trump, who replaced Bush atop the polls in July, and has remained there ever since, what he would “do in response to Russia’s aggression” in Ukraine and Syria.
It was an interesting question, not necessarily because of how Bartiromo asked it, but because there is no subject on which the Republican field disagrees more than the subject of how and when to intervene overseas. In the wake of the disastrous Iraq War, some Republicans have revived the cautious, consensus-seeking foreign policy approach of George H.W. Bush; others, worried about the rise of ISIS, have doubled down on the more bellicose rhetoric of his son, George W. Unlike much of what the Fox moderators asked the candidates Tuesday night, this was actually worthy of debate.
In true Trump fashion, the Donald uncorked a rambling answer that was long on hothead rhetoric and short on logic. “First of all, not only Russia,” he began. “We have problems with North Korea, where they actually have nuclear weapons” — as if Russia doesn’t. (He also seemed to be suggesting that there was a “madman over there” in Iran with nuclear weapons as well.) He then went on to claim that he “got to know [Putin] very well because we were both on ‘60 Minutes.’” (Apparently they “were stablemates,” and both “did very well that night.”)
But it was when Trump got to the meat of his neo-isolationist “argument” — his claim that “We can’t continue to be the policeman of the world” — that Bush began to sense his opportunity.
“If Putin wants to go and knock the hell out of ISIS, I am all for it, 100 percent,” Trump said. “And I can’t understand how anybody would be against it.”
Bush tried to interrupt, but Trump repeatedly cut him off.
“They’re not doing that,” Bush said, off camera.
“Hold it,” Trump snapped.
“They’re not doing that,” Bush repeated.
“Wait a minute,” Trump said.
As Trump prattled on about how Putin is “going in and we can go in and everybody should go in,” presumably to Syria, Fox Business cut to Bush on the split screen, shaking his head and looking sad. He was itching to tell his fellow Americans why Trump was wrong — and when the moderators finally gave him the green light, that’s exactly what he did.
“Donald is wrong on this,” Bush said. “He is absolutely wrong on this. We are not going to be the world’s policeman, but we sure as heck better be the world’s leader. There’s a huge difference.”
The audience applauded. So far, so good. Here was Bush’s big moment! The moment he would finally stand up to the schoolyard bully! The moment he would finally show America why the star of NBC’s “The Apprentice” would be a dangerous choice for commander in chief!
But Bush just didn’t quite have it in him. “Without us leading, voids are filled,” he said, boldly using the passive voice to summarize his approach to international affairs. He compared “the idea that it’s a good idea for Putin to be in Syria” to “a board game.” (“That’s like playing Monopoly or something,” he added, somewhat confusingly.)
And from there, Bush’s rebuttal went downhill fast. “If you’re a Christian, increasingly, in Lebanon or Iraq or Syria, you’re going to be beheaded,” he continued, beginning to lose his way. “And if you’re a moderate… uh… moderate, uh, Islamist” — a term that by its very definition means not at all moderate — “you’re not going to survive either.”
Finally, the whole thing ended not with a bang, but a whimper. “We have to play a role in this,” Bush said, petering out, “to bring the rest of the world to this issue before it’s too late.”
In a vacuum, Bush’s answer would have been fine. Not great, not a moment —but not especially bad, either. But it was what happened next that made Bush look weak in comparison.
First up was former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who countered Trump’s isolationism with a far more muscular, and fluent, defense of American interventionism than Bush was able to muster. “I would start rebuilding the Sixth Fleet right under [Putin’s] nose,” she said. “I would start rebuilding the military missile defense program in Poland right under his nose. I would conduct very aggressive military exercises in the Baltic states. … And I might also put a few thousand more NATO troops into Germany — not to start a war, but to make sure Putin understands that the United States of America will stand with our allies. That is why Governor Bush is correct: We must have a no-fly zone in Syria, because Russia cannot tell the United States of America when and where to fly our planes.”
The crowd roared. On the split screen, Bush smiled meekly and nodded.
Next was Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who made Trump’s case in far more rational and realistic terms than the tinsel-haired Manhattanite. “You can be strong without being involved in every civil war around the world,” Paul said. “You’re asking for a no-fly zone in an area where Russia already flies at the invitation of Iraq. Do you realize that what you’re saying is that we’re going to shoot down Russian planes? … That’s naive to the point of being something you might hear in junior high.”
Finally, it was Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s turn to show up his old mentor. “We have a president who treats the prime minister of Israel with less respect than the ayatollah of Iran,” Rubio said. “Putin is exploiting that weakness for purposes of edging America out as the most important geopolitical powerbroker in the region. We do have a vested interest here. [ISIS doesn’t] hate us simply because we support Israel. They hate us because of our values. They hate us because our girls go to school. They hate us because women drive in the United States. Either they win or we win. We better take this risk seriously. It is not going away on its own.”
The crowd roared again.
At the end of the evening, Bush insisted that America doesn’t need “an agitator in chief or divider in chief” but rather a “commander in chief.” But when he got the chance Tuesday night to show how convincing he could be in that role, he wound up sounding less forceful than a rookie libertarian senator, a businesswoman with no real foreign policy experience, and his 44-year-old protégé from Florida, all in the span of a few short minutes.
Bush ended his closing statement with time to spare. He looked like a man who knew his moment had passed.
(Cover tile photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)