The Bush primary

at 11:08 AM ET, 05/26/2011


Former President George W. Bush isn’t likely to endorse in the 2012 Republican presidential race. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Talk has increased in political circles about just which way the Bushes — aka the first family of Republican politics — and their universe of political operatives and donors are leaning in the 2012 presidential race.

With Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels — a former Bush Cabinet member — bowing out of the GOP presidential primary over the weekend, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush making it clear that he won’t run, the Bush crowd is not only very much up for grabs but also a valuable prize for any GOP candidate.

While certain former Bush operatives have joined up with some of the just-launched campaigns, valuable Bush fundraisers and campaign hands remain on the sidelines for now.

So when former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman met with George H.W. Bush on Monday in Maine, ears perked up, and questions arose about whether Team Bush might line up behind the former Utah governor who served in both the first and second Bush administrations.

But, those close to the Bush political operation say it’s looking less likely that the so-called “Bush people” will line-up and work in a concerted way on behalf of just one candidate.

“I think Bush world will be pretty divided now,” said former top George W. Bush adviser Mark McKinnon. “Daniels may have coalesced a large block of Bush supporters, but now and generally, [there’s] not much cohesion.”

Added another former George W. Bush political aide granted anonymity to speak candidly: “There is this notion that people in Bush World are waiting for a smoke signal from [Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas] that they should support one candidate or another. I don’t think that’s the case.”

Huntsman, in fact, isn’t the only candidate to get an audience with George H.W. Bush. He follows in the footsteps of former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who did the same a couple weeks ago.

Parsing the Bushes’ public statements is similarly unhelpful.

In November, George H.W. Bush and his wife said very nice things about Mitt Romney in what many saw as an informal endorsement. But since then, there has been little to suggest that they’ve been guiding donors or aides in Romney’s direction. (Though it should be noted that many of Romney’s top advisers have ties to the Bushes.)

Similarly, Jeb Bush offered some unsolicited support for Pawlenty on his Twitter feed on Monday, saying: “I admire truth telling and t-paw sure did it to open his campaign.”

Looking to former Bush senior staff for some sense of where the family comes down? It’s not all that helpful either.

Like Romney, Pawlenty has hired top Bush advisers, including former George W. Bush White House political director Sara Taylor Fagen and 2004 Bush re-election political director Terry Nelson.

Huntsman, meanwhile, announced this week that he has hired a top former aide to Jeb Bush to run his campaign in Florida.

In other words, the Bush people, to the extent that they are getting involved at this point, are all over the map. And, many of the biggest names in Bush world — Karen Hughes and Karl Rove to name two — haven’t showed their hand when it comes to the 2012 field.

Though there’s still a possibility that the Bushies will coalesce behind someone — especially when it comes to the all important Bush-aligned donors and fundraisers — there’s not much reason to believe it will happen at this point.

There are several reasons for it.

The main one is that we’re talking about several Bushes. The two former presidents and Jeb Bush all carry significant weight in the party and have significantly different political operations. If one were the pre-eminent face of the family and they had closely-connected operations, then it would be easier to pin down which direction the family was pushing things — perhaps by one of them offering a public endorsement.

There has been plenty of talk about such a “shadow endorsement” — i.e. Jeb Bush or George H.W. Bush endorsing someone so that it sends a signal to George W. Bush’s aides and fundraisers — the latter who are big prizes in the so-called “Bush primary.”

But given Jeb’s own stature within the party — and potential future political plans — it’s not clear that he would want to endorse or that such a subtle message would even register.

A George W. Bush endorsement is almost unthinkable, and not just because he left office unpopular with the American public. The 43rd president has been almost completely hands-off in the years since his presidency and has made it clear that he wants a quiet (and non-political) post-presidency.

The most likely scenario, it would seem, is an endorsement from George H.W. Bush, and perhaps that’s why he’s the one meeting with candidates. But again, many of the people who work for Jeb and George W. Bush don’t have the same sense of loyalty to the 41st president.

In the end, the more likely scenario is that the Bush people remain spread out. It may be the case that they wind up rallying around one candidate more than another, but the prospect of them moving en masse to any one candidate — be it Romney, Pawlenty, Huntsman or someone else — isn’t as simple as it seems.

With George W. Bush shunning the limelight and Jeb Bush potentially looking out for his political future, it’s not clear what inclination the family would have to get involved.

 
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