For some of the Republicans expecting Trump to lose and an internal GOP melee to be set off, there’s scattered hope of Bush helping bring the party together somehow. What that would look like is not at all clear. He endorsed Maine Senator Susan Collins for reelection, but that’s the extent of his involvement in this year’s contests, and he doesn’t have many relationships with the rising generation of Republican leaders such as Nikki Haley, Josh Hawley, or Tom Cotton.
“George Bush doesn’t need to be the standard-bearer of whatever comes after Trump,” Michael Steele, the former Republican National Committee chair, who’s supporting Biden, told me. With conservatives like him hoping for a return to a more traditional Republican Party, Steele said, “Bush is someone who has the opportunity to remind us of what those values were.”
Ahead of Trump’s inauguration in 2017, the former presidents’ staffs stayed in touch as they made their announcements about attending the ceremony. (In the end, all came except for the elder Bush, citing health concerns.) Over the past four years, there have been multiple moments when Trump’s opponents have hoped that the ex-presidents would issue some kind of joint statement.
“Especially during the first few months of the pandemic and after George Floyd’s death, there were constant calls and emails from people wishing all the presidents to get together to do something,” one person in touch with a former president told me. “But that group uniquely knows that to have maximum impact and be viewed as a bipartisan effort, all of them would have to participate.”
But the only times the former presidents appeared together was at a 2017 hurricane-relief concert in College Station, Texas organized by the elder Bush, and then at his funeral.**
Imagine, however, that Trump loses and spends the transition undermining the election and threatening to stay in the White House. A joint statement probably won’t mean much if it’s signed only by Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Obama—all Democrats who have endorsed Biden. Keeping neutral through the election might give Bush more credibility to be part of a statement that would aim to stand above politics.
The irony, of course, is that Bush came into office after his own long, contested election 20 years ago, when he moved forcefully to assert control. I reached out to Al Gore to see what he made of Bush’s current rectitude. He declined to comment.
Steele said he thinks the turmoil might be bad enough that the country will need Bush to speak up.
“It’s not going to be a question of George Bush placating hard-core Trumpers,” Steele said. “What George Bush can do is speak to the relatives and friends of those hard-core Trumpers and say, ‘Can you get your crew to calm down a little bit?’”
* This article previously misstated that Bill Kristol is part of the Lincoln Project. In fact, he is part of Republican Voters Against Trump.
** An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the hurricane relief concert.