Shribman: In GOP, Bushes vs. Romneys

David Shribman

The agony is palpable. It comes through in conversations, in awkward moments of silence, in audible sighs.

Ordinarily politics is full of the crassest instincts, the basest motives, the meanest impulses. But this is different. This is a matter of loyalty, friendship, battles fought, values shared — and of two special fathers, each with a political legacy of his own.

This may be the toughest decision of the age for the Republican establishment. The looming choice between two former governors, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Jeb Bush of Florida, has induced an unease without precedent in modern American politics.

Few Democrats stewed over the choice between John F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey in 1960. The two were from different regions, possessed different outlooks, had different styles, moved in different circles.

No Republicans wrestled with the choice of Gerald R. Ford or Ronald W. Reagan in 1976. The two had almost nothing in common.

Even the two reform-minded Ivy Leaguers — one Harvard, the other Princeton — who fought for the 2000 Democratic nomination produced little agita. Vice President Albert Gore Jr. and former Sen. Bill Bradley drew from different strains in the Democratic Party.

This early 2016 campaign anxiety began the other day when Romney, who already has run for president twice, indicated he is contemplating a third campaign even as Bush, son and brother of a president, was assembling the rudimentary elements of a presidential campaign of his own.

Former Gov. John H. Sununu of New Hampshire was an indispensable element in the presidential campaigns of both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush and served as chief of staff in the elder Bush’s White House. But he played a leadership role in the two Romney campaigns, too.

“I have too many friends running in this election,” he says.

Sununu is not alone. Says a leading business executive who raised money for both Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush’s presidential brother: “I’m going to try to stay away from the telephone.”

So, presumably, will Gov. Nikki R. Haley of South Carolina. Romney campaigned for her. She’s very close to Bush. The same goes for former Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, whose family has lived in New Hampshire since 1718 and been presidential power brokers in the state since his father, Hugh Gregg, became governor in 1953.

The senior Romney asked the senior Gregg to run his 1968 presidential campaign in New Hampshire, and the younger Gregg was an ardent backer of the younger Romney.

The senior Gregg ran the senior Bush’s New Hampshire presidential campaign in 1980, and the junior Gregg ran the junior Bush’s campaign in the state in 2000.

Romney and Bush are not sunshine and snowstorm versions of the same political profile. But they draw from the same fundraiser, organizer and activist pool. They’re scions of political giants, firmly in the establishment wing of the Republican Party, each with prep-school backgrounds and personas. They both have strong, imaginative records as governors — and a cool temperament. And they each claim a deep well of family and personal loyalty. Within the GOP establishment, loyalty is the virtue that is valued most — and is causing the most anxiety.

The closest comparison to the 2016 angst may be the struggle between Romney’s father, Gov. George Romney of Michigan, and former Vice President Richard M. Nixon in 1968. But the elder Romney withdrew a dozen days before the New Hampshire primary and his supporters were far more congenial to Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York than to Nixon.

The elder Gregg then ran Rockefeller’s campaign in New Hampshire.

The Bushes and the Romneys may be everywhere, but the Greggs — two of them have occupied the governor’s office in Concord — are everywhere, too. And every place in the Republican Party where there is a Bush, a Romney or a Gregg — and countless others — there is great unease today.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.