Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is in Berlin Tuesday to take President Barack Obama’s administration to task for not establishing a harder line against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s meddling in Ukraine, highlighting the Russian strongman’s emergence as an increasingly prominent figure in the 2016 presidential race.
Bush’s speech provides insight into Republican attack lines against Democrats as the 2016 campaign heats up. First, they plan to go after Obama for not being tougher on Putin, who has annexed Crimea and continues to stoke the flames of war in eastern Ukraine. Speaking in Germany Monday, Obama threatened tougher sanctions on Russia, but Bush’s comments make clear Republicans, those vying for the White House, want him to do more — even if they’re refusing to offer many specifics.
“Russia must respect the sovereignty of all of its neighbors,” Bush is expected to say, according to leaked excerpts of the speech. “And who can doubt that Russia will do what it pleases if its aggression goes unanswered? Our alliance, our solidarity and our actions are essential if we want to preserve the fundamental principles of our international order.”
The second emerging Republican line of attack will be to attack Obama’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011, blame him for the rise of the Islamic State, and say he’s not doing enough to defeat it. Bush and other GOP contenders, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), have all dogged the president for not doing enough to prevent the group from transforming from a ragtag group of militants into an organized fighting force that has declared large parts of Iraq and Syria a caliphate.
It’s also clear that Bush and other GOP candidates’ politics no longer stop at the water’s edge. Jeb’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, would likely have cringed at the notion of attacking a lame duck president. But Obama started this trend in a 2008 speech in Berlin, calling out George W. Bush’s administration for allowing transatlantic ties to fray. Republican contenders have now made criticism of Obama a core tenant of the ongoing contest.
Bush has had trouble handling his criticisms of Obama. He’s been all over the map in Iraq, changing his tune on whether the initial invasion was a good idea four times in one week while trying to outrun the shadow of his older brother, George W. Bush, who started the widely unpopular war.
He’s also making a gamble by taking his anti-Putin message to Berlin. A recent poll of Germans by YouGov found that only 7 percent of them view Bush in a positive light; 27 percent of Germans view him negatively. Jeb, who still hasn’t declared his intention to run for the 2016 presidential nomination but is all but in the race, is also haunted by the long shadow of his brother, who is still widely disliked across Germany because of the Iraq war.
Germans have vacillated between whether to blame the crisis in Ukraine on Russia or the Americans. The country also has deep business ties with Russia, and many there are uncomfortable doing anything that could cause economic blowback in Germany. His anti-Putin message would play much better in Poland and Estonia, two countries he’s set to visit during his European trip.
Skepticism about Bush’s visit is evident in German media. Deutsche Welle, Germany’s national news outlet, published a piece Monday questioning his fundraising efforts. Der Spiegel, a publication that is widely believed to reflect elite public opinion, also had an unfortunate comparison for Jeb: It called the Bush family the Kardashians of U.S. politics.
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