Bush’s Euro­pean ex­er­cise in cau­tion

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Seema Mehta

TALLINN, Es­to­nia — When he flies home from here Satur­day, Jeb Bush can boast that his rip­ple-free trip to three Euro­pean na­tions this week proved he is ca­pa­ble of strid­ing with­out stum­bling on a global stage.

But that may not pro­vide much po­lit­i­cal ben­e­fit to the for­mer Florida gover­nor when he launches his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign Mon­day in Miami. Repub­li­cans prob­a­bly will re­main skep­ti­cal of his con­ser­va­tive cre­den­tials, es­pe­cially since he es­sen­tially en­dorsed Pres­i­dent Obama’s for­eign pol­icy on sev­eral ma­jor is­sues, in­clud­ing the conf lict in Ukraine and the NATO se­cu­rity al­liance.

Bush’s five-day trip to Ger­many, Poland and Es­to­nia was an ex­er­cise in po­lit­i­cal cau­tion and mod­er­a­tion. He called for a more ro­bust Amer­i­can mil­i­tary pres­ence in Eastern Europe but re­peat­edly de­clined to of­fer specifics.

“Look, I’m here to learn — to lis­ten and learn and get a bet­ter sense of all this,” Bush told re­porters in Ber­lin. “I don’t come to of­fer five-point plans.”

Most im­por­tant, he avoided the kind of over­seas blun­ders that tripped up Mitt Rom­ney when he was the pre­sump­tive 2012 GOP

nom­i­nee, and that hurt sev­eral ri­vals in this year’s large and grow­ing Repub­li­can field.

By that stan­dard, Bush’s trip can be judged a suc­cess, said Tom Rath, a New Hamp­shire GOP ad­vi­sor and Bush fam­ily friend who is un­aligned so far for 2016.

“Th­ese are trips where you’re not sup­posed to make news,” Rath said. “They’re ba­si­cally f ly­ing photo ops, and the most im­por­tant thing is to do no harm.”

Over the last six months, Bush has raised vast amounts of money for his cam­paign-in-wait­ing, and he still leads some polls. But he has failed to break away in a race that many had ex­pected him to dom­i­nate from the start.

Im­agery from his Euro­pean tour aligned with the per­sona his aides hope will res­onate with vot­ers, not just in the GOP nom­i­nat­ing fight but be­yond: sober­minded, steady-handed, a self-de­scribed pol­icy wonk com­fort­able dis­cussing world af­fairs.

He made a few public ap­pear­ances — speak­ing at a con­fer­ence in Ber­lin, lay­ing wreaths at revered sites around War­saw, meet­ing cy­ber­se­cu­rity ex­perts in Tallinn. He also met pri­vately with the pres­i­dents of Poland and Es­to­nia, with the Bush name serv­ing as a high-pro­file call­ing card and pro­vid­ing the in­stant cred­i­bil­ity his lesser-known ri­vals lack.

Although Bush has never served in fed­eral of­fice, he had a front-row seat to the pres­i­den­cies of his fa­ther, Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush, and his older brother, Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush.

In Europe, Bush pub­licly lauded his fa­ther, who turned 91 on Fri­day, as “the great­est man alive.” He never once brought up his brother, who is not highly re­garded abroad. He and his wife, Columba, even played tourist at times, some­thing his brother fa­mously dis­dained.

Still, Bush hasn’t run for of­fice since 2002, and he left the Florida gover­nor’s man­sion in 2007 — and it’s clear af­ter six months back in the public eye that he is still try­ing to get his sea legs.

The stark­est ex­am­ple was his stum­bling, for sev­eral days last month, on what should have been a po­lit­i­cal soft­ball ques­tion: whether, in ret­ro­spect, his brother was jus­ti­fied in start­ing the un­pop­u­lar war with Iraq. Bush fi­nally said no.

On this trip at least, he stayed re­lent­lessly on mes­sage — pos­i­tive and tem­per­ate. He hopes to do the same when he takes the stage Mon­day at a com­mu­nity col­lege in Miami.

“I hope the mes­sage will be a hope­ful, op­ti­mistic one,” he said here Fri­day. “It won’t dwell too much in the past. I will talk about why it’s im­por­tant to change di­rec­tions.”

Still, Bush said the trip “hadn’t changed” his think­ing about Amer­ica’s role in the world, out­lin­ing a gauzy view that would fit into the main­stream of ei­ther party.

“We can’t be all things to all peo­ple; we can’t be the world’s po­lice­man,” he said in War­saw. “But we can be clear and con­sis­tent and en­gaged … po­lit­i­cally and diplo­mat­i­cally and in terms of mil­i­tary, we need to be en­gaged.”

Bush fol­lowed the tra­di­tion that it is un­seemly to crit­i­cize po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents on for­eign soil, of­fer­ing only mild re­bukes of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. On Fri­day, he de­clined to overtly dis­par­age Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial fa­vorite Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton.

Even his put-down of Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin as a “bully” echoed Obama’s lan­guage. In June 2014, Obama said Rus­sia had acted as a “bully” by im­pos­ing its “will at the bar­rel of a gun” in Ukraine.

Part of Bush’s trip was eclipsed back home by re­ports of a 1995 book he cowrote, called “Pro­files in Char­ac­ter,” that called for a re­turn to public sham­ing to dis­cour­age out-of-wed­lock births and other be­hav­ior he con­sid­ered immoral or in­ap­pro­pri­ate.

It’s a tick­lish topic for a party that says it cham­pi­ons “fam­ily val­ues” but is bit­terly di­vided over the public’s grow­ing sup­port for same­sex mar­riage and other gay rights. Bush spoke care­fully when he was asked about the book.

“My views have evolved over time, but my views about the im­por­tance of dads be­ing in­volved in the lives of their chil­dren hasn’t changed at all,” he said.

He also shrugged off re­ports of tur­moil and squab­bling on his staff af­ter he re- placed his cam­paign manager early in the week. With eight months be­fore the first cau­cus and pri­mary votes are cast, he took the long view.

“It doesn’t re­ally mat­ter,” Bush said in Ber­lin. “It’s June, for cry­ing out loud, so we’ve got a long way to go.”

Politi­cians have been known to travel abroad to get away from their prob- lems at home. To the ex­tent Bush needed a whiff of fresh air and a chance to re­set his cam­paign ahead of his kick­off speech in Miami, his over­seas jaunt may prove just the po­lit­i­cal tonic he needed.

Jacek Tur­czyk Euro­pean Pressphoto Agency

JEB BUSH leaves the Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs in War­saw on Thurs­day. He praised his fa­ther but didn’t bring up his brother on his five-day Euro­pean trip.

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