Poppy’s Backing

George H.W. Bush Endorsed Romney? Big Surprise, They’re Cut from the Same Cloth

Bush 41 backed Mitt Romney. Big surprise, says John Avlon.

There he was—Poppy Bush—giving Mitt Romney the Lone Star Yankee benediction in his office, resplendent in purple socks and a white turtleneck, while Barbara gazed on. The establishment has spoken: Romney is to be the GOP nominee. Now only the rank and file have to fall in line.

The Bush family’s belated backing of Team Romney is really no surprise. Mitt Romney is the perfect fit for the Bush political model—an Ivy League–educated businessman from a good Republican family carrying Rockefeller Republican DNA into the leadership of a more conservative party. Personal virtues like marital fidelity are presumed—the Bushes and the Romneys have, after all, known each other for a long time. There is sympathy for the dance Romney is doing in the primary—the patrician’s uneasy truce with the rough-and-tumble world of politics is reconciled by advice from the Lee Atwater school, circa 1988: sometimes you have to campaign dirty to govern clean.

The formal Bush 41 endorsement follows Jeb and Barbara’s lead. W’s endorsement will not be forthcoming—he feels it is bad form to put his finger on the scale, and furthermore a full-scale embrace might not even benefit the presumptive nominee, not now or ever. But make no mistake, the Bush family has spoken, and they will continue the gravitational push to nudge the nomination to Romney whether or not he hits 1,144 delegates.

Newt is persona non grata in the Bush clan—he led the conservative congressional attack on 41 for breaking the “Read my lips: no new taxes” pledge and was exiled during 43’s administration as a result. Rick Santorum is a loyal soldier, but not a party leader—he might actually believe the fire-and-brimstone stuff. And as for Ron Paul, well, he might be Texan, but he’s no fan of the Fed or the Bush Doctrine, and so he might as well come from a different planet.

Despite that Mitt took the awkward step of saying he was “an independent during Reagan-Bush” when he ran for the Senate in 1994, he was an early endorser of W in the run-up to the 2000 election, even going as far to visit Austin, Texas, and offering to help the early stages of his campaign, according to the authors of The Real Romney.

But the real connection between the two families goes back to the GOP battles of the mid-’60s. George Romney and George Bush were two leaders of the centrist wing of the party during the Goldwater insurgency. They courageously backed civil-rights legislation when many conservatives opposed its passage. They represented the best of the greatest generation and weathered the Watergate era with George H.W. Bush serving as Republican National Committee chairman during the late Nixon administration, while George Romney served in the Nixon cabinet. As a tribute to George Romney, Brigham Young University encapsulated “a liberal in his treatment of fellow humans; a conservative in his treatment of other people’s money.” Both men provoked intense love and loyalty on the part of their sons, who would try to follow in their footsteps after stints at Harvard Business School.

George W. Bush certainly learned from his father’s mistakes—he never let the conservatives in his party turn his right flank. Mitt Romney’s lessons have been even more starkly internalized. His father’s brief 1968 run for the presidency was derailed by the gregarious George being too loose-lipped, speaking with such colorful nonspecificity that he would often need to be called in to clarify his comments before reporters. A gaffe about being “brainwashed” over Vietnam came to symbolize this tendency and sealed his fate. Mitt’s takeaway is extreme self-monitoring—he will not allow his campaign to go down because he spoke too much.

But George H.W. Bush’s political lessons resonate across the GOP generations. He was getting clobbered in the ’88 campaign until legendary operatives Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes helped him right his ship by getting tough and running down Michael Dukakis with an onslaught of negative ads. This “by any means necessary” strategy worked—and it was again employed by W in the notoriously dirty South Carolina primary against John McCain in 2000. Mitt Romney’s campaign deployed an unprecedented percentage of negative ads in Iowa and Florida, and his core strategy has been to outspend his rivals by multiples of 5 to 1.

Mitt’s success so far in marching toward the nomination is improbable in that a Massachusetts governor who ran as a centrist in 2002—consistent with his father’s political philosophy—could lead a party mobilized aggressively against a national health care modeled on his state model. It represents is a triumph of the old guard, repackaged as necessary to get the nomination. The understanding is that this is all just politics—nothing Romney says on the campaign trail can be held against him. It is the cost of doing business. The reward is serving the public good after achieving financial success.

The bottom line is that Romney is a candidate out of the Bush tradition even more than Reagan, for better or worse. The Catch-22 is that the Republican leadership recognizes it needs someone centrist-right to win, but the person must be packaged as a hard conservative to have a prayer in the primary. Romney, like Poppy Bush, seems to have a vague disgust for the game of politics. Instead there is ambition balanced with a sense of noblesse oblige: strong, wealthy families sticking together for the good of the country and, they believe, the good of the country—unity made easier by the irresponsible alternatives.