He’s not on any campaign payroll, but you could call him an informal adviser. Several of the GOP’s potential 2016 presidential candidates have, over the past few years, sought the advice of former president George W. Bush in Dallas.
Although the former president has deliberately kept a low profile since he left Washington in January 2009, his door is always open for ambitious Republican politicians. He has welcomed a succession of likely 2016 candidates to his office in Dallas for private conversations about life, politics, and the all-consuming quest they will confront if they decide to seek the nation’s top job. New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Kentucky senator Rand Paul, and Florida senator Marco Rubio have all called on him. Other potential 2016 candidates say they plan to do so.
Bush’s office is tight-lipped about these meetings, but former Bush press secretary Dana Perino, now a co-host of Fox News Channel’s The Five, says, “I’m not surprised they’d seek his advice. He’s the best politician I know.”
Paul squeezed in a visit with Bush in early February; he was in Dallas keynoting a fundraiser for a state senator and sitting down with Glenn Beck in the radio and television host’s mock Oval Office.
Christie was in Texas last September raising money for the Republican National Committee. Between fundraisers in Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston, a breakfast event at the estate of Republican mega-donor Harlan Crow, and a Cowboys game with team owner Jerry Jones, he slipped away with his wife and his eldest son to visit with Bush.
“As a two-term Republican president, he’s got a perspective and experience that nobody else has,” says Christie adviser Bill Palatucci, a longtime Bush insider who served as a state campaign manager for George H. W. Bush and a bundler for George W. Bush. “As successful as his father was, and as much respect as we all have for President Bush 41,” the younger Bush commands respect for “threading the needle at the presidential level twice,” says Palatucci. Bush, he adds, has a “wealth of experience that he’d like to share with those who are interested in listening.”
Having watched his father campaign for the vice presidency and then for the presidency, and having then won two presidential elections himself, Bush is in a unique position to offer insight on the impact of a presidential campaign on the candidates themselves as well as on their wives and families.
That’s something he acknowledged in his book Decision Points, writing, “More than any other candidate in history, I understood what running for president would entail” because he had watched his father “endure grueling months on the campaign trail” and “seen his record distorted, his character attacked, his appearance mocked.” He witnessed friends abandoning his father, and saw firsthand how difficult it was to win and how much it hurt to lose.
He also learned important political lessons at his father’s side. According to former Minnesota governor and GOP presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, who consulted with both Bushes when he was mulling a bid in 2011, Bush won in 2000 in part because he was already familiar with the presidential-campaign process. “It was almost as if he was a second- or third-time candidate,” Pawlenty says.
In their conversation, Pawlenty recalls Bush telling him that candidates have “no idea what running the gauntlet is like until they’ve actually done it.” Anybody who hasn’t been through a presidential campaign, he explained, “just can’t imagine the pace and pressure that comes with it.” He will inevitably make mistakes.
The potential 2016 candidates are not the first presidential aspirants to seek Bush’s advice. Pawlenty says “all or most” of the 2012 field made the trek, too.
Despite the arduousness of a national campaign, Pawlenty says, Bush was encouraging about his bid, brushing the Minnesota governor’s concerns aside. “He essentially said, ‘If you want to run, run,’” Pawlenty says. “His basic view was, the heck with all of that, if you think you have the best vision for the country, then do it.”
That advice wasn’t unique to him, Pawlenty says. He believes that Bush was encouraging to all those who sought his input and that as a general matter he wants to “encourage people to do it rather than discourage them.” If that’s his attitude with this crop of candidates, it may get a little awkward: The former president could be encouraging potential competitors with his brother Jeb, should he run.
The potential candidates come to Dallas not just to seek Bush’s advice; there is of course a more blatant element of self-interest. The candidates are making their own campaign pitches in the hopes of one day securing an endorsement. “There may come a day when that would happen and we wanted to have a marker in that discussion,” Pawlenty says.
Then there is the matter of money. Together, the Bush family has won four gubernatorial races and three presidential elections. It boasts a donor network that extends to every city, town, and hamlet in the country. “Most of . . . the Republican or conservative funding network is the Bush network,” says Pawlenty. “People want to try to gain support from that network, and having him be aware of that and neutral or positive to you is helpful.”
Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who calls himself a “great admirer” of Bush, says that he and his wife, Tonette, visited the former first couple in Dallas when they traveled to Super Bowl XLV in February 2011 to watch the Green Bay Packers defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Walker says that, for now, he speaks with Jeb Bush more than he does with the former president, and that in Dallas they spoke less about policy and “more about personal stuff.”
“Laura Bush was really great with Tonette,” he says, “because the [Bush] twins were about the same age as my kids were when I first started.” He adds, “I imagine at some point in the future if I was interested in something beyond governor I’d talk to him.”
Not all of the likely 2016 candidates have sought Bush’s advice — yet. A spokesman for Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal said that while he hasn’t made the trip to Dallas, Jindal — who worked in the Bush administration’s Department of Health and Human Services — and Bush remain friendly. An adviser to Indiana governor Mike Pence said that he has not made a trip to Dallas.
The 43rd president may have left office one of the most unpopular presidents in history, but among this group of Republicans, his advice and approval are still coveted.
— Eliana Johnson is a political reporter for National Review Online.