By Peter Baker and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 9, 2008
In the same hotel ballroom where conservative activists greeted John McCain with a mix of cheers and boos just 16 hours earlier, President Bush tried to calm his party's base yesterday. Without naming McCain, Bush assured the group that the eventual Republican nominee will "carry a conservative banner" to the White House.
Eight years after they battled it out for the presidency, Bush and McCain find their fates linked again by history, but this time they are on the same side. With McCain virtually guaranteed the Republican nomination to succeed Bush, they head together into a general election campaign depending on each other. McCain needs the president to help reunite their splintered party, and Bush needs the senator from Arizona to validate his presidency and carry forth its strategy in Iraq.
The latest chapter in their tumultuous relationship will play out over the next nine months against the backdrop of a war that both support, even if the public does not. Whatever their differences over the years on taxes, torture and other issues, they have forged a powerful bond as the two leading champions of the Iraq war and the decision a year ago to send more troops, according to associates of both men.
And while they will continue to disagree at times, that central imperative could link them when voters pass their judgment.
"At times, they were the only two who agreed with the overarching strategy," said John Weaver, McCain's former chief strategist, who helped repair the breach between the two men during Bush's first term. "And so it's in both of their interests, not just for political reasons, for this journey they've been on together to continue."
Their partnership may help rally conservatives, but it also provides ammunition to liberal foes. Democrats plan to portray a McCain administration as effectively a third Bush term. MoveOn.org, a liberal advocacy group, wasted little time sending members a memo yesterday characterizing McCain as "the man who helped George Bush launch the Iraq war."
"On just about every major vote on Iraq, McCain has been right there, voting for Bush's position," said Eli Pariser, MoveOn's executive director. "When you look to the future, McCain is more Bush than Bush. He seems determined to keep us there for a long time."
Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said Bush will be both a boost for McCain and a drag on him. "He will probably help him where he has weakness with Republicans and probably hurt him with the rest of the country, which wants to move on from George Bush," Emanuel said.
McCain hopes to fend off the Bush-clone argument with his long-standing reputation as an independent-minded politician willing to fight his president and his party when he disagrees with them. While boasting of his support for the troop buildup in Iraq last year, the candidate regularly reminds audiences that he also criticized Bush's management of the war and called for Donald H. Rumsfeld's resignation as defense secretary.
He is "running here to be his own man," said Charlie Black, a senior McCain strategist who has also been an informal adviser to the Bush White House over the years. "And politics is always about the future and not the past. I'm sure the Democrats will try from time to time to run against President Bush. That won't work."
The relationship between Bush and McCain has been at the center of so many dramas that it seemed somehow inevitable that it would come full circle. By many accounts, it took years for the two men to recover from the bruising days of the South Carolina primary in 2000, when the charges and countercharges became increasingly savage and Bush effectively destroyed McCain's campaign. After Bush took office, McCain fought his tax-cutting proposal and forced him to sign a campaign finance overhaul despite his own reservations.
By the 2004 campaign, the two had reached detente and traveled the country together promoting Bush's reelection bid. Afterward, with the president's permission, McCain began lining up Bush advisers and fundraisers for his eventual run. But the senator continued to irritate the president by forging a compromise with Democrats over stalled judicial nominations, fighting the White House on detention and interrogation policies for terrorism suspects, and criticizing Bush's handling of Iraq and Hurricane Katrina.
Eric Ueland, a top aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), said much of the animosity owed more to staff friction or minor differences that were blown out of proportion. "In some respects, they are very similar," he said. "Each identifies a goal and is incredibly persistent about pulling off that goal."
Indeed, statistics compiled by Congressional Quarterly show that McCain voted with Bush about 90 percent of the time in five of the first six years of the president's tenure. And the two seemed to move closer on major policies, with Bush tackling the congressional pet projects that have long been a McCain target and McCain supporting Bush's first-term tax cuts being made permanent. They also stood together against fierce opposition to their plan to create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and the decision to reinforce troops in Iraq.
"When times got tough in Iraq, and people's knees could have buckled and people could have gone certain directions, McCain made clear, 'I'm with you and we'll die in the last foxhole together if need be,' " said Karl Rove, Bush's former deputy chief of staff. "Rather than draw away from the unpopular strategy, McCain hugged it even tighter."
Peter Feaver, a former Bush national security aide, said the two men reached their positions out of principle, not friendship. "I suspect the Bush-McCain convergence you see on policy has more to do with them independently confronting the same set of realities and less to do with one persuading or cajoling the other to join their bandwagon," he said. But he noted that as Bush looks beyond the end of his term, "there is no question that McCain will be the candidate who most shares President Bush's commitment to winning the Iraq war."
The president has remained neutral during the nomination battle, but with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's withdrawal Thursday, McCain's nomination became all but assured, and Bush appeared to begin trying to put the wounds of the primary season behind the Republican Party. "We have had good debates, and soon we will have a nominee who will carry a conservative banner into this election and beyond," Bush told the Conservative Political Action Conference yesterday. "The stakes in November are high. . . . So with confidence in our vision and faith in our values, let us go forward, fight for victory and keep the White House in 2008."
Bush's implied endorsement of McCain's conservative bona fides could help settle doubts within the party. The president has also agreed to give "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace an hour-long interview at Camp David this weekend to talk about the fall campaign. But he plans to wait to begin any overt campaigning. "We are studiously neutral in this race, and that is where we remain today," White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said yesterday.
While Bush is receiving record-low approval ratings from the general public, he remains popular with the Republican base, a fact that the McCain camp hopes to exploit. "Don't underestimate the value of a sitting incumbent president on the progress of a campaign," said Howard Opinsky, a former McCain aide. "When it comes to fundraising, President Bush is still a tremendous draw. When it comes to closing the deal with the party and getting people on board, I think President Bush can be of help."
But the two camps will have to figure out how to coordinate through November. This will be the first time since 1952 that a president finishing his second term does not have his vice president running to succeed him in the general election, so there will not be anyone representing the campaign's interests in daily White House planning meetings.
"It's going to take more of an effort," said a former administration official. "How do you make sure what the president is going to say is going to comport with what the candidate wants?"