Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Jeb Bush and the 6 Ways of Passing the Commander-in-Chief Threshold Test

Every successful candidate for president must past the commander-in-chief threshold test. The American public will not elect somebody unless they have convinced themselves they can trust them with this responsibility, and rightly so. Most successful candidates for president have observed at some point in their presidential tenure (or after) that they found adjusting to the ...

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Every successful candidate for president must past the commander-in-chief threshold test. The American public will not elect somebody unless they have convinced themselves they can trust them with this responsibility, and rightly so. Most successful candidates for president have observed at some point in their presidential tenure (or after) that they found adjusting to the role of commander-in-chief to be one of the most difficult challenges of their presidency. That aspect of job is so very different from all the other aspects of being president, and the customary career paths of presidents -- Gov.ships and congressional positions -- do not really mimic it directly. Even the career path most similar, say being Supreme Allied Commander in World War II, is only partly a preparation for the unique job of commander-in-chief, as Dwight Eisenhower discovered; and as he mentioned in his farewell address, he did not think he had done the commander-in-chief function as successfully as he might have.

Every successful candidate for president must past the commander-in-chief threshold test. The American public will not elect somebody unless they have convinced themselves they can trust them with this responsibility, and rightly so. Most successful candidates for president have observed at some point in their presidential tenure (or after) that they found adjusting to the role of commander-in-chief to be one of the most difficult challenges of their presidency. That aspect of job is so very different from all the other aspects of being president, and the customary career paths of presidents — Gov.ships and congressional positions — do not really mimic it directly. Even the career path most similar, say being Supreme Allied Commander in World War II, is only partly a preparation for the unique job of commander-in-chief, as Dwight Eisenhower discovered; and as he mentioned in his farewell address, he did not think he had done the commander-in-chief function as successfully as he might have.

So candidates have to make it over that threshold. But how? There is a fairly ritualized set of six maneuvers that every candidate attempts, though each is difficult in its own way and each can be flunked with disastrous results:

  1. Answering questions about foreign policy. Most obviously, candidates demonstrate their readiness by answering questions, particularly detailed questions on policy. This is especially hard if the candidate has not had an extensive background in foreign policy. As Sen. Hillary Clinton learned in the 2008 campaign however, even if your opponent makes some foreign policy gaffes it may not necessarily cause him to flunk the overall test. But some answers can be so bad that they amount to a full-on fail.
  1. The foreign trip. Most serious candidates for president make a foreign trip after they have gotten attention as a candidate, and this trip takes on greater significance even if the candidate had previously conducted many foreign trips. These trips are a chance to look presidential, but they are a minefield. The trip can blow up over a poorly phrased comment touching on foreign policy, as Gov. Mitt Romney demonstrated in 2012. Or the stumble can come with an answer to a domestic policy question that gets dramatically amplified because of the heightened press scrutiny, as Gov. Chris Christie demonstrated in this cycle.
  1. The meeting with troops. If you want to be seen as commander-in-chief, it helps to be seen in front of the troops. All candidates will find a way to appear before a uniformed military audience and, better yet, to mingle with the rank and file military. But beware. If you try too hard to be seen as “one of them” you can flunk the test, as Gov. Dukakis discovered in 1988.
  1. Endorsements from troops. Since 1992, candidates have gone beyond meeting with troops to recruiting former military members to formally endorse them. Securing the endorsement of retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral William Crowe likely saved Bill Clinton from flunking the commander-in-chief test due to reports of his efforts to dodge the draft during the Vietnam War. But, as I have argued at length elsewhere (see hereand here), this practice is quite toxic for civil-military relations. I wonder if it hasn’t become so toxic that a candidate might actually win some political points on the commander-in-chief threshold test by eschewing the practice on principle and then explaining why he/she has done so.
  1. The assembling of a kitchen cabinet. While assembling a roster of four-stars is a bad idea, assembling a kitchen cabinet of foreign policy heavyweights is a good idea. The caliber and composition of the advisory team can say a lot about a candidate, signaling the type of foreign policy he or she might intend to implement and also signaling the candidate’s capacity to do one of the most important functions of the president: staffing the administration with quality personnel.
  1. Delivering a big speech on foreign policy. Of course, every candidate will eventually produce a raft of position papers culminating in a complete policy platform. But early in the process, the best candidates distinguish themselves from the also-rans, and thereby help pass the threshold test, by giving a speech that outlines the candidate’s worldview and draws appropriate contrasts with others on offer to the American voter.

Maneuvers five and six bring us to Gov. Jeb Bush, for on Wednesday he conducted both of them. He unveiled a list of advisors and he gave a big speech on foreign policy. And judging from the many media calls I have done in the last couple days on this topic, many reporters believe this was a particularly challenging minefield for him to run because he would have to distinguish himself from his father and brother who earlier successfully passed the commander-in-chief test. Doesn’t that mean, reporters would ask, that Jeb Bush must denounce George W. Bush, or doesn’t that mean that he must pick advisors who are not too connected with the earlier administrations.

The media interest is sufficient proof that Bush indeed must distinguish himself as his own man, but I do not believe that this is as difficult a minefield as the commentary would suggest. Or rather, I believe that there are more landmines in the territory marked “avoid your family at all costs” than there are in the territory marked “identify differences where they exist, give reasonable answers to the ‘what would you have done about Iraq’ question, but focus on the future and on drawing contrasts with Obama-Clinton (and perhaps with Sen. Rand Paul) than with the other Bush presidents.” Especially when you consider Republican primary voters, the corridor between Bush 41 and Bush 43 is the mainstream global worldview. Gov. Bush (Bush 45?) is right to stay within that corridor. If anything, it is Paul who has the more difficult task of distancing himself from the foreign policy views of his family, for Ron Paul’s foreign policy views are well outside the mainstream of voters (Republican and Democrat). If Gov. Bush goes to extraordinary lengths to draw contrasts with his surnamed predecessors, he will reinforce a cartoon critique that helps Democrats more than it helps him.

My read is that Gov. Bush has successfully accomplished maneuvers five and six, and if he can similarly pass numbers one, two, and three (and, better yet, avoid number four), then he will have passed the threshold test. That by itself won’t make him president, but it will make him a serious candidate and will increase the pressure on his Republican rivals.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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