By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 29, 2007
When nine Republican presidential candidates presented their cases to Iowa activists at a Des Moines dinner this month, only Arizona Sen. John McCain went out of his way to embrace President Bush. "There's only one commander in chief of the United States, and that's George W. Bush," he told the crowd. "I support him, and I believe in him."
But when McCain formally kicked off his campaign last week, there seemed to be a lot he did not believe in, such as Bush's handling of the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina and federal spending. McCain called for Bush's attorney general to resign. "That's not good enough for America," he said after reciting a litany of Bush failures. "And when I'm president, it won't be good enough for me."
The swing between reverence and repudiation over a 10-day period mirrors the arc of the relationship between Bush and McCain, two dominant figures in their party who have danced along the fine line separating alliance and rivalry for eight years. At times, Bush has had no stronger supporter than McCain; at others, no harsher critic. For McCain, the challenge of the next year will be figuring out how to reconcile those instincts. And for Bush, the challenge will be living with them.
The senator's tone on his announcement tour suggested that his strategy of moving closer to Bush in recent years has reached its limits. But whether he likes it or not, McCain is also the candidate most associated in the public mind with the president's war in Iraq, making him an unlikely would-be successor to the man who beat him for the Republican nomination in 2000.
"History has linked these two guys up at a time in our national and world history when their strengths complement each other," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a close McCain ally. "The differences they've had historically will be overshadowed by their collaboration. There've been some operational differences but not strategic differences."
That puts McCain in the awkward position of needing Bush to boost his own chances. "It's ironic that McCain spent eight years sucking up to the White House and now it's a negative," said Ron Kaufman, a former aide to George H.W. Bush who is supporting former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney for the GOP presidential nomination.
The official line in both camps is that Bush and McCain long ago put any personal animosities behind them and today respect each other even if they disagree on key issues. Kaufman compared the relationship to the one between the elder Bush and then-Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), who patched up their differences after a tough 1988 nomination fight. The president has told associates that he recognizes that McCain and other Republicans will need to run against him to some extent. "The president understands politics," a senior aide said.
But it does not require much scratching to find the scar tissue from their bitter 2000 battle and the many subsequent clashes over policy in the years since. "When you talk to people, they cringe," said a White House official, who spoke about the prospect of McCain succeeding Bush on the condition of anonymity. A former Bush aide, after giving the ritual assertion that both sides have moved on, recalled a string of McCain provocations, then caught himself. "Doesn't it sound like the wounds are pretty fresh for someone who said it's 'Let bygones be bygones' ?" he sighed.
On the other side, a former McCain aide said "much of the hate is over," but added: "The White House staff is arrogant. They tend to have the 'if you're not with us, you're against us' " attitude. As for McCain, he returned to South Carolina last week and obliquely recalled his searing primary showdown with Bush, predicting to reporters that the state's voters "will reject that kind of campaigning" this time around.
The evolution of the Bush-McCain relationship really goes back to South Carolina. The two arrived there in February 2000 after the senator trounced the Texas governor in the New Hampshire primary. A brief, brutal campaign ultimately destroyed McCain's candidacy and propelled Bush to the nomination. The resulting bitterness persisted as the new president took office, and as McCain fought Bush's tax cuts and forced him to sign a campaign finance law that he opposed. The president was regularly exasperated. "He would say, 'There he goes again,' " the former Bush aide said.
The relationship began to change when Bush aide Karen Hughes reached out to McCain and arranged a dinner between the two men. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, helped bring them together, too. But it was not until 2004 that the two camps reached a rapprochement. Much of the enmity had been fueled by a long-standing feud between their chief strategists, Karl Rove and John Weaver, two old Texas hands who had a falling out in 1988 over a disputed bill for a campaign mailing and became fierce rivals. "They both do politics to win, so the competition is intense, to say the least," said Reggie Bashur, another Texas consultant.
In early 2004, Weaver called Bush adviser Mark McKinnon and told him that it was time to settle things with Rove. McKinnon arranged a meeting with the two men at a Caribou Coffee shop near the White House where they agreed to put their differences behind them. "Listen, we had a very tough, intrafamily fight," Weaver recalled in a recent interview. "These are always tougher, the fights between families. McCain was over it before everybody else was. Like a lot of these things, some of the lower-level soldiers didn't come out of the hills for a long time."
Within weeks of that hatchet-burying session, McCain began campaigning with Bush. The two went together to Fort Lewis, a huge military base in Washington state, and met privately with the families of slain soldiers. "It was a pretty emotional meeting, as they are apt to be," Weaver said. "I remember John putting his arm around the president. . . . I think there was some unspoken bond that developed in that moment."
By fall, McCain was a regular presence on Air Force One and even stayed at the president's Texas ranch. McCain bucked up Bush before his Arizona face-off with Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). "He was like a debate coach," McKinnon said. "He was back in the green room going, 'You're going to be great, you're going to be great.' "
That did not mean McCain would stop being a thorn in Bush's side. The senator forged a bipartisan compromise on Bush's judicial selections that irked the White House, and led a rebellion against the president on detention and interrogation policies for terrorism suspects. He also regularly denounced the mistakes made in Iraq and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's performance. But as he geared up for his second presidential campaign, McCain recruited Bush operatives and became the strongest advocate of sending more troops to Iraq.
Among the Bush advisers who have joined McCain's campaign are McKinnon, Terry Nelson, Tom Loeffler and Steve Schmidt. McKinnon said he was "given a green light" by the White House, although Bush remains neutral in the nomination contest. Making the switch, McKinnon said, was a bit of a culture shock. "Working for President Bush and the Bush world is like working for the Royal British Navy," he said. "Working for John McCain is like working for the pirates of the Caribbean."
As McCain tries to recapture the buccaneer spirit of 2000, he finds himself tied to Bush's sinking navy. Moveon.org, the liberal advocacy group, produced two ads linking them, one showing a series of Bush-McCain hugs and proclaiming that "John McCain has done more than just embrace George Bush's failed policy in Iraq. It's actually his idea to escalate the war there."
Polling suggests that the link works against McCain even among Republicans. Only 38 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents surveyed by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press said they want their candidate to continue Bush's policies in Iraq, while 54 percent said they want a different approach.
McCain allies said his alternating praise and criticism of Bush stem from principle, not political calculation. But they acknowledge that they may determine his political fate. "John is certainly trying to do what he thinks is right, both when he supports the president and when he doesn't," said Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.). "This is not a straight line. This is a minefield, and you've got to deal with the mines where they are."
Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report from South Carolina.