When word spread late Monday that George W. Bush had bluntly expressed his dislike for Ted Cruz, it was not exactly a surprise to those familiar with the former president's thinking.
Tensions between the Bushes, the most famous family in Texas politics, and Cruz, the freshman senator with his sights set on the White House, are nothing new. And a presidential race in which Cruz has made no secret of how he views GOP foe Jeb Bush and past Bush administrations has done little to settle the rift.
"I just don't like the guy," George W. Bush said of Cruz on Sunday in Denver, according to Politico. The website, citing sources who saw him at a fundraiser for his brother, also reported that the 43rd president took issue with Cruz's friendly relationship with GOP frontrunner Donald Trump, and suggested that Cruz had "hijacked" the Texas GOP.
In response to the story, Cruz said he had "no intention of reciprocating" but noted that it was no surprise that George W. Bush would attack "the candidates he believes pose a threat" to his brother's campaign. A spokesman for George W. Bush countered that the former president "does not view Sen. Cruz as a 'serious rival' to Gov. Bush's candidacy."
The episode is again drawing attention to one of the central tensions in Cruz's political universe: his years working for — and enthusiastically supporting — the same Bushes who now symbolize the GOP establishment he is torching in his White House bid. Before becoming the solicitor general of Texas in 2003, Cruz was a part of George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign, then a member of his administration in roles at the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission.
"Few, if any, in American politics have more of an establishment resume than Sen. Cruz," said Stuart Stevens, the top strategist for Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign. "Ivy League degrees, worked for Gov. Bush and President Bush, Supreme Court clerk, U.S. senator, multimillionaire. It's difficult to be more of an establishment figure."
Regarding George W. Bush, Stevens added, "It's perplexing that someone would try to distance himself from the person most responsible for his success in politics."
The latest illustration of this notion came Wednesday, when BuzzFeed published excerpts of a little-known contribution Cruz made to a 2004 book called "Thank You, President Bush." In a 16-page chapter, Cruz effusively praised George W. Bush on a range of issues, sometimes "in direct contradiction with his more recent criticism of the Bush administration," the website said. For example, Cruz echoed Bush's unease with campaigning on getting rid of the U.S. Department of Education; these days, calls to abolish the agency are a regular part of the senator's stump speeches.
Cruz's allies argue there is nothing wrong with Cruz working for the Bushes then criticizing parts of their records — not personally attacking them — with the benefit of hindsight. Asked to comment for this story, a Cruz aide would only reiterate that it is "not surprising that Bush supporters will come out to attack Sen. Cruz since he's proven himself a formidable candidate for the GOP nomination, as was reportedly acknowledged by George W. Bush himself."
Cruz backers relish any opportunity to contrast him with the Bushes, whom they view as the antithesis of the senator's unbending brand of conservatism. They were downright gleeful about George W. Bush's reported comments, holding them up as proof that the GOP establishment was growing worried about Cruz's candidacy.
"My fingers ache because I’ve been writing thank you notes all day to establishment people for basically endorsing Ted Cruz by broadcasting to the grassroots that he’s the one they fear," said Kellyanne Conway, a GOP pollster who leads a pro-Cruz super PAC. The former president's comments, she added, show that Jeb Bush is no longer seen as an impossible-to-beat fundraiser who can capture and maintain presidential frontrunner status.
"'Shock and awe' ... has been reduced to 'Aw, shucks,'" said Conway, president of Keep the Promise I. "Look at money, morale, poll numbers and apparently the monthly salaries of 60 staffers — all down."
The Bush campaign, which reportedly cut staffer salaries by hundreds of thousands of dollars in the third quarter, declined to comment.
Until this week, George W. Bush had been relatively quiet about the 2016 race. Since leaving the White House, he has studiously avoided wading too deep into politics — which made the Politico story all the more newsworthy.
"President Bush – I can’t ever recall him speaking out critically like that about anybody since he left the White House," said Fred Zeidman, a major Bush bundler. "I assure you there's fire where there's smoke."
Perhaps, Zeidman added, the former president has "finally just adopted a position that Ted Cruz's stridency is not good for our party ... and that he needs to be defanged for the good of all of us."
Other Bush allies suggested George W. Bush's frustrations cut deeper than the 2016 race. As Texas' political landscape has turned a deeper shade of red, Cruz has become the face of a conservative movement that Bush supporters think has lost sight of the family's contributions to the state GOP.
"We see politicians, including Ted, who want to walk both sides of that aisle," said Jonathan Neerman, a former chairman of the Dallas County GOP who is backing Jeb Bush. "On the one hand, they want to portray themselves as newcomer, outsider candidates. On the other hand, they want to point to their experience helping prior candidates while raising money from the establishment and Wall Street, and I think that frustrates people like President Bush."
In the presidential race, Cruz has been blunt in his assessment of Jeb Bush's candidacy, saying the former Florida governor holds some views that "are in direct conflict with the views of most Republicans." In a backhanded compliment, Cruz occasionally tells reporters he respects Jeb Bush's "candor."
"He has been quite candid in embracing amnesty, in embracing Common Core," Cruz said in an interview earlier this year.
During a weeklong swing through the South this summer, Cruz regularly drew loud boos at the mention of Jeb Bush as one of the Republicans who criticized Cruz's approach to opposing the president's Iran deal. Cruz no longer uses the riff in his stump speech but continues to note that he's running neck-and-neck with Jeb Bush in the money race, if not surpassing him by some measures.
Cruz's White House bid has also included no shortage of laments about the shortcomings of the presidencies of George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. In his book "A Time for Truth," which was released in June, Cruz did not mask his disenchantment — specifically with the end of George W. Bush's administration.
"The Bush administration came to office promising to revitalize the Reagan Revolution — which had inspired me to get into politics in the first place," Cruz wrote. "Instead, it took the Republican Party down the path of bigger government, excessive spending and new entitlement programs that we couldn't afford."
Campaigning last week in Iowa, Cruz offered the latest contrast between a Bush presidency and a Cruz presidency. He asked a meet-and-greet crowd in Rockwell City to recall the beginning of the George W. Bush administration, when by Cruz's telling, the president tried to claw back an EPA rule on arsenic, only to curb his ambitions after getting "pounded by" the media and members of both parties.
"You didn't see the administration take on a whole lot more regulations over the next eight years," Cruz said. "And so one of the points I'm making is the difference between — is when I say I'm going to take this stuff on, I'm going to do it."
Weeks earlier, Cruz had volunteered another Bush-era contrast, promising to put up a fight for conservative judicial appointees if elected president. He suggested both Bush presidents had shied away from nomination battles in their selections of David Souter and John Roberts for the U.S. Supreme Court.
That led to a confrontation in the most recent GOP debate between Cruz and Jeb Bush, who suggested that the senator was trying to "rewrite history" given that he had offered a vigorous defense of Roberts' nomination at the time. Cruz, who said he regretted supporting Roberts' nomination, revived the theme Sunday during an appearance in Plano, saying "many of the most egregious judicial activists" were selected by Republican presidents. He added that the next commander-in-chief must be "willing to spend the capital" to nominate true conservatives.
Longtime George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove said on Fox News this week that the former president has "expressed a little bit of astonishment as to the attacks that Ted made on him," namely going "out of his way" to criticize him on his record of judicial appointments. Rove added that Cruz has not "said a single word" about another former president — Reagan — nominating questionably conservative justices in Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O'Connor.
"I think that’s generous of Ted to say he’s not going to reciprocate," Rove remarked dryly. "I wish he had that same sense of generosity before he began to attack the president gratuitously."