Jeb Bush belatedly solves his Iraq war problem -- sort of

Jeb Bush has taken a small blunder and made it bigger, says Doyle McManus in @latimesopinion

After three days of avoiding a statement almost any other politician would have made long ago, Jeb Bush finally said it on Thursday: His brother’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was a bad idea.

“Knowing what we now know, I would not have engaged,” Bush said during a visit to Arizona. “I would not have gone into Iraq.”

But the fact that he spent almost a week of campaign time on the issue was a lesson in how being the scion of a political dynasty is a mixed blessing.  Bush took a simple problem -- a bungled answer in a television interview -- and made it much worse for his presidential campaign.

Bush faced three challenges as he prepared to run for the Republican nomination. First, he needed to convince GOP primary voters that he’s a genuine conservative, not a moderate. He’s made some headway on that count.

Second, he needed to show that his last name wouldn’t be a liability -- that, as he said in his first major speech, “I love my father and my brother … but I am my own man.”

And third, he needed to spend his time talking about the future, not the past -- to shake the image, eagerly reinforced by his rivals, that he’s a refugee from the 1990s, a throwback to an ancient pre-tea-party age.

And that’s where Bush has made his problems worse: Instead of showcasing his assets, he’s spent the week emphasizing his own liabilities.

When Megyn Kelly of Fox News asked Bush a predictable question on Monday -- if he had known in 2003 that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, would he still have supported the war? -- he appeared to misunderstand the premise.

"I would have, and so would have Hillary Clinton,” he said. “And so would almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got." The faulty intelligence the CIA supplied in 2003, he meant -- but that wasn’t the question.

The next day, the former Florida governor got a chance to recover -- and he bungled it again. If he had known in 2003 what he knows now, Bush said, “I don’t know what that decision would have been."

“I don’t know”? Bad answer for any prospective president. As conservative activist Grover Norquist told the Washington Post: “I don’t get it. How could you not have been ready for this question?”

Bush’s conservative rivals for the nomination lost no time in capitalizing on his lack of crispness. “Not only would I not have been in favor of [the invasion], but President Bush would not have,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio told reporters.

Bush’s belated clarification at the end of the week helps -- but doesn’t erase all the damage. Whether he meant to or not, he’s tied himself even more closely to his brother. It’s hard to avoid the impression that, unlike other conservatives, he couldn’t bring himself to say that the 2003 invasion was a mistake because it was his own family’s mistake.

And he’s guaranteed that a 12-year-old question will dog him -- first in the primary debates against other Republicans, and then, if he’s nominated, in a likely showdown with Hillary Rodham Clinton, who says her 2003 vote for the war was, indeed, a mistake.

If one of Bush’s campaign challenges is to shake off the past, right now he’s moving backward, not forward. Clinton isn’t the only candidate in this race who’s carrying baggage.

Follow Doyle McManus on Twitter @doylemcmanus and Google+

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11:20 a.m.: This post has been updated to reflect Jeb Bush's most recent comments on the Iraq war, in which he said he would not have invaded in 2003.