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McCain May Be Bush's Ticket

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By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, June 14, 2005

McCain-Bush in 2008?

That would be John and Jeb, the most logical Republican ticket if the party remains in the polling doldrums. If President Bush and his political maestro, Karl Rove, decide that the only way to create a political legacy is to nod toward the Arizona senator with whom they have battled and feuded, they will go for the guy who can win.

This scenario was outlined to me recently by a shrewd and loyally Democratic political operative with personal ties to the McCain camp before Mark McKinnon, one of the president's top media advisers, publicly confirmed that he would help a McCain presidential run if it materialized.

Times change and politicians do what they have to do. For years, McCain and the president couldn't stand each other. The surest way not to get a job in the early Bush administration was to have supported McCain over Bush in the 2000 primaries.

But McCain made a crucial decision to alter the relationship in 2004. Courted hard by John Kerry as a potential running mate, McCain said no. He decided he wanted to be president and that it was unlikely he would ever get a Democratic nomination -- and implausible that he could win as an independent. His one shot was as a Republican.

Once this choice was made, everything else fell into place. McCain joined the Bush crowd. He gave a powerful speech endorsing the president at last year's Republican National Convention in New York. The address was perfect for both McCain and Bush. Unlike the speeches bashing Kerry and the Democrats by Zell Miller, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rudy Giuliani, McCain's stuck to policy and praised Bush for his decision to go to war in Iraq.

This allowed McCain to keep his reputation for clinging to the high ground, but it was also important for Bush, whose central policy legacy, for better or worse, will be Iraq.

The standard view of McCain's choice, especially among Democrats, is that he sold out to Bush for nothing. This assumes that McCain can't win the 2008 Republican nomination because of the intense opposition he will face from the Republican right, especially from Christian conservatives. It also assumes that Bush will never lift a finger to help McCain.

In Bush's ideal world, that would probably be true. But the current moment is not ideal for Bush, and the economy, Iraq and the political situation may be even less ideal two and three years from now.

If the Republicans' ethics problems worsen, McCain's Mr. Clean image will look ever more attractive to Republican members of Congress desperate to hold power. If things get really bad, many Republicans will be happy to dump House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and embrace McCain.

The situation in Iraq shows no sign of turning around quickly. Who would be willing to stick with Bush's adventure? Bush would like to hand over power to a president committed to his Iraq policy. McCain -- who is close to the party's neoconservative wing -- has been steadfast in defending the president's decision to go to war, despite doubts about prewar planning and mistakes early in the occupation.

And if middle-class income growth is sluggish, bread-and-butter discontent will benefit any Democrat running on a throw-the-bums-out platform. McCain could promise just enough change to win the election. He voted against Bush's tax policies, yet he is also among the most fiscally conservative members of the Senate.

For all these reasons, Bush and McCain could end up as each other's best friends. Bush has been battling, with Rove's help, for a long-term political realignment in favor of the Republicans. The president could well come to see McCain as the only Republican with a chance to push a Republican era forward. McCain, in turn, knows that his only way around the Republican right is to run with Bush's open blessing, if not his outright endorsement.

And here is where Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, could be the deal-closer. Jeb Bush has said he will not run in 2008. But that does not rule him out as a vice presidential candidate. If McCain won, Jeb would be the No. 2 to a president who will turn 72 on Aug. 29, 2008, and might well serve only a single term. If McCain lost, Jeb would have enhanced national recognition for a run in 2012. If picking Jeb is the price of winning over George W., McCain will pay it.

George W. Bush and John McCain may prefer not to need each other. But by 2008, they could well become codependent. American politics has produced stranger alliances.

postchat@aol.com


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