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As Jeb Bush Stumbles on Iraq, Rivals Pile On. Here's Why.

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter
Image: Civilians on foot pass tanks on a bridge near the entrance to the besieged city of Basra March 29, 2003 in Iraq.
FILE – 20 FEBRUARY 2013: On March 20, 2003 the United States headed a coalition with UK and other forces to invade Iraq. The country's leader Saddam Hussein was eventually captured, stood trial and was executed by the newly established Iraqi government. Violence between various Iraqi groups led to insurgencies throughout the years. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the end of 2011 officially declared the Iraq War over with the last U.S. troops withdrawing from Iraqi soon after. Iraq's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction that posed a threat to the coalition, prompting the invasion in 2003, were never found in these 10 years following the start of the invasion. BASRA, IRAQ - MARCH 29: Civilians on foot pass tanks on a bridge near the entrance to the besieged city of Basra March 29, 2003 in Iraq. Baath Party loyalists have taken up positions in Basra, Iraq's second largest city, making it a target of the U.S.-led war on Iraq. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)Spencer Platt / Getty Images, file

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter

Why the growing GOP opposition to the Iraq war shouldn’t be surprising

After three days of re-litigating the Iraq war, here is where the 2016 Republican field now stands: Jeb Bush is one place (first saying he would have authorized the war, then saying he doesn’t know what his decision would be, and finally saying he’s not going to engage in hypotheticals). And the rest are in another place, saying they wouldn’t have been in favor of the war from what they know today (with no weapons of mass destruction). So where is this sentiment coming from? Is it a way for a still-hawkish GOP field -- minus Rand Paul, of course -- to stick a knife in Bush? Or is it a real sentiment? Well, here’s an answer from the Oct. 2014 NBC/WSJ poll: The Republican Party was ALREADY moving away from the Iraq war before this week. In that poll, 66% of American voters, including 49% of Republicans, said they believed the Iraq war wasn’t worth it. Yes, there’s probably a little ’16 maneuvering going on (especially among those who had defended the war in the past). Yes, some might be parsing the “knowing what you know now” part of the question. But this growing sentiment against the Iraq war shouldn’t be surprising when HALF of Republican voters already agree the war wasn’t worth it.

Why Jeb’s “hypothetical” answer is unacceptable

In three days, Jeb gives three different answers on Iraq:

  • Monday (when the full Megyn Kelly interview aired): “I would have [authorized the invasion], and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody. And so would almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.”
  • Tuesday: After saying he misheard the Kelly’s question, Bush replied, "I don't know what that decision would have been [with 20/20 hindsight], that's a hypothetical. But the simple fact is that mistakes were made," he told Sean Hannity on his radio program.
  • Wednesday: "If we're going to get back into hypotheticals, I think it does a disservice to a lot of people who sacrificed a lot," he said.

Wait a second: The ENTIRE premise behind a presidential candidacy is a hypothetical exercise -- it’s imagining the candidate making policy decisions about past, present, and future matters. It’s an unacceptable answer for a candidate to say he/she won’t engage in hypotheticals, because the whole game is a hypothetical. Any candidate that uses the word "hypothetical" to duck answering a question should be reminded of this. The collective political class has somehow accepted the hypothetical excuse from candidates as standard practice. It should stop if we want to have any hope of finding out how these men and women would conduct themselves as president.

And why you can’t skip Iowa

Finally on the Jeb Bush front, Buzzfeed reported yesterday that Jeb COULD decide to skip the Iowa caucuses altogether, after already bailing on the Iowa straw poll. The Bush camp pushed back hard. “Tim Miller, a spokesman for Bush, strongly denied that the candidate planned to write off Iowa, and suggested those who say otherwise are merely speculating. ‘There is nobody with any shred of authority or proximity to Gov. Bush suggesting that, should he decide to run for president, he skip or ignore Iowa,’ he said.” There’s a reason why Miller is saying that: You can’t be a national candidate and skip competing in a general-election swing state. John McCain got buried in Iowa in the 2008 general because he skipped Iowa. As political scientist Jonathan Bernstein observed, “You can lose Iowa. You can downplay Iowa. You can lower expectations in Iowa. You can't skip Iowa.”

That was fast! Senate today reconsiders “fast track” measure

Yesterday, we emphasized that the successful Senate Democratic filibuster on Tuesday against giving President Obama trade-promotion authority (TPA) was less about progressives fighting Obama and more about pro-trade Senate Democrats wanting more leverage. Well, guess what happened: Democrats and Republicans have reached a deal, and a new vote will take place TODAY. Per NBC’s Frank Thorp, the deal plays out like this:

  • A vote on the Customs Bill (including the currency manipulation favored by Democrats but opposed by many Republicans, as well as the White House);
  • A vote on the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a non-controversial trade preference program focusing on sub-Saharan African nations.
  • Then start consideration of TPA/TAA with open amendments

Senate Democrats filibustered TPA to give themselves more leverage – to get votes on these other measures. But in doing so, they risked prolonging the nasty Democrat-vs.-Democrat storyline on trade. Well, it looks like they did strengthen their hand. And they limited the damage to one 24-hour news cycle. Today’s votes start around noon ET, per Thorp. And final consideration of TPA is expected early next week.

Was the tragic train derailment about infrastructure? Or human error?

In the wake of the tragic and deadly rail derailment in Philadelphia, we’ve heard a common cry from many: “See, there needs to more infrastructure investment in the country!” And while that’s a legitimate debate worth having, was what happened in Philadelphia about infrastructure? Or was it about human error, with the news that the train was traveling 106 miles per hour? We know it is standard practice to hurry up and politicize a crisis, or use it to push an agenda. But people are dead and perhaps everyone should wait for the facts and then push leaders to respond.

On the trail

Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum address the RNC Spring Meeting in Arizona… And Christie attends a fundraiser in McLean, VA.

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