What's Behind George W. Bush's Odd Romney Endorsement?

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The former president blurted out his support for his party's nominee -- only to be greeted with silence in return.

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Reuters

Updated 6:48 p.m.

George W. Bush's endorsement of Mitt Romney on Tuesday appears to have been unplanned. The former president had just given a speech on human rights in Washington, and afterward, Matt Negrin, a reporter for ABC News, followed him to the elevator and asked who he's supporting in the election in November.

"I'm for Mitt Romney," Bush said, as the elevator doors inched closed.

Well, sure he is. What else was he supposed to say? But it was beyond strange to see a former two-term Republican president slide his support for his party's presumptive nominee under -- or, rather, through -- the door in this manner. And Romney's response was even stranger: silence. The Romney campaign didn't respond to a request for comment on the Bush endorsement, and Romney didn't mention it in his post-endorsement speech Tuesday in Iowa. (A campaign spokeswoman told the New York Observer that Romney was "proud" to have Bush's support, but did not expect to campaign with him.)

Is that any way to treat a former president from your own party? Yes, Bush remains unpopular -- in March 2011, the most recent poll I could find, his favorable rating was measured at 42 percent, while 54 percent viewed him unfavorably. Compare that to President Clinton, whose approval in the same poll stood at 67 percent. Clinton, incidentally, has not endorsed Romney -- but he was mentioned positively and at length in Romney's Iowa speech.

Bush may not be popular, but his ratings have improved considerably since April 2008, when just 31 percent viewed him positively. And right around that time -- March 2008 -- Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting, sucked it up, gritted his teeth, and went to the White House to accept Bush's endorsement. McCain was no great friend of the 43rd president's. He'd run against him in 2000 and frequently disagreed with him during Bush's presidency. But he pronounced himself "honored and humbled" to accept Bush's support. If you are the latest to join the hallowed lineage of nominees for president of the Grand Old Party, that is just what you do.

Would it really be so awful for Romney to have graciously acknowledged Bush's endorsement? Romney wasn't too anxious about how it would look to be endorsed by Donald Trump or Ted Nugent. He hustled to Houston to receive George H.W. Bush's endorsement in person. He's going to be attacked as a Bush clone no matter what -- on Tuesday, in response to Bush's impromptu endorsement, the Obama campaign issued a statement saying, "President Bush has endorsed Governor Romney, and Governor Romney has endorsed a return to Bush-era economic policies." Tying Romney to Bush-era policies is a prominent feature of Obama's stump speech, and Romney has not bent over backward to repudiate Bush's record -- in fact, he's defended it, saying Bush, not Obama, deserves credit for turning around the economy.

At this point, Romney's apparent avoidance of Bush is far more conspicuous than any one-and-done grip-and-grin with the former president would have been -- if, in fact, that's what it is. There is another possibility, and that's that it's Bush who's holding out. Plenty of other Republicans have held their noses and gotten formally behind Romney. Is it possible that Bush, who's supposedly so radioactive, isn't keen to do the same?

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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