The Friend He Just Can't Shake

By Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 1, 2008

Hurricane Gustav has spared Republicans one potential problem -- President Bush and Vice President Cheney are skipping tonight's first session of the Republican National Convention to remain on hurricane watch in Washington. Tying Bush, Cheney and their dreadful approval ratings around the neck of this year's Republican ticket has been the Democrats' dream all year.

But the president's decision to stay away from St. Paul this week won't solve John McCain's Bush problem. During their convention in Denver, the Democrats made perfectly clear their intention to run against "McSame" and "George W. Bush's third term." Republicans in St. Paul can't hide the fact that they are picking the person they hope will be Bush's successor.

Wait -- isn't McCain different from Bush? Tim Russert, the late moderator of NBC's "Meet the Press," asked McCain precisely that question three years ago. "No," McCain replied firmly, "no."

He elaborated: "The fact is that I have agreed with President Bush far more than I have disagreed. And on the transcendent issues, the most important issues of our day, I've been totally in agreement and support of President Bush. . . . My support for President Bush has been active and very impassioned on issues that are important to the American people. And I'm particularly talking about the war on terror, the war in Iraq, national security, national defense, support of men and women in the military, fiscal discipline, a number of other issues. So I strongly disagree with any assertion that I've been more at odds with the president of the United States than I have been in agreement with him."

In politics, timing is often telling. When McCain gave this account of his political intimacy with the president in June 2005, nearly half the electorate approved of the Bush presidency, and only a quarter disapproved. Perhaps more relevant to McCain at the time, 84 percent of Republicans in a Washington Post-ABC News poll still held a favorable view of Bush. McCain was thinking hard about running for president. In the months that followed, he decided to run and decided initially at least to run as the heir to Bush, hoping to win the support of the Republican establishment still loyal to the president.

This was but one of many complicated moments in the McCain-Bush relationship since they ran against each other for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000. Then, McCain told friendly colleagues in the Senate that he thought Bush was a "lightweight," an opinion that did not improve during the campaign. McCain lost his famous temper in South Carolina, where the Bush campaign and its allies derailed his upstart challenge, using aggressive tactics, including the spreading of false rumors about McCain.

Peace of a kind was made in a Pittsburgh hotel room in May 2000. McCain and Bush held a 90-minute meeting to bury the hatchet, both reading from scripts. Bush raised the subject of the vice presidency, but McCain said he wasn't interested. They had an awkward conversation. Afterward they gave a joint news conference in which McCain endorsed Bush. But no affection developed -- quite the contrary. Connie Bruck of the New Yorker quoted the McCains' good friends and Arizona neighbors, Sharon and Oliver Harper, recounting an August visit by Laura and George Bush to the McCain ranch. The Harpers said the McCains pleaded with them to change their own vacation plans to be with the McCains when this visit occurred. "John and Cindy said, '. . . We don't want to be left alone with them, this is going to be really difficult,' " Sharon Harper told Bruck.

But soon afterward (you may want to fasten your seat belt here), McCain was passing word to the Bush camp that he was willing to be the vice presidential candidate. Dick Cheney got the nod instead. McCain then spoke warmly of Bush from the podium of the 2000 GOP convention in Philadelphia: "If you believe patriotism is more than a sound bite and public service should be more than a photo op, then vote for Governor Bush," McCain said. "He wants to give you back a government that serves all the people no matter the circumstances of their birth. And he wants to lead a Republican Party that is as big as the country we serve."

Soon after the 2000 election, though, McCain told guests at a Los Angeles dinner party hosted by actress Candice Bergen that he had not voted for Bush -- according to Arianna Huffington, the liberal blogger and a guest at the party. McCain's aides sharply denied this. Then two other dinner guests, actors Bradley Whitford and Richard Schiff, said they heard McCain say the same thing.

Back in Washington after Bush took office, McCain flirted with crossing the aisle of the Senate to vote with the Democrats and give them a majority, an idea that died when Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont did just that. McCain then established himself as an independent voice who opposed the new Bush administration on a series of high-profile issues, including stem cell research (which McCain favored), tax cuts (McCain opposed them), a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage (McCain against) and campaign finance reform (McCain favored it).

When the Democrats nominated his friend John Kerry as their 2004 standard bearer, McCain seriously considered Kerry's suggestion that he join the ticket as the candidate for a kind of super vice presidency. McCain decided against it. McCain did, however, defend Kerry repeatedly against Swift boat charges that he had misrepresented his Vietnam War record.

Karl Rove, Bush's political operator, then put out peace feelers to McCain. A new understanding was reached. McCain again agreed to support Bush in a convention speech, in New York in August 2004. "I salute his determination to make this world a better, safer, freer place," McCain said. "He has not wavered. He has not flinched from the hard choices. He will not yield. And neither will we."

In the subsequent campaign, McCain traveled with Bush and spoke on his behalf repeatedly. "His support was critical," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), McCain's close ally, said later to Bruck of the New Yorker. In March 2005, McCain joined Bush on one of his early trips around the country promoting the partial privatization of Social Security.

Soon after that, McCain was defending his closeness to Bush in that appearance on "Meet the Press." The film clip of this McCain testimonial to our unpopular leader has not yet appeared in a commercial for Sen. Barack Obama, McCain's Democratic rival, although the segment has been available on YouTube for months. Perhaps the Obama campaign is saving it for later.

The McCain camp says tying their man to Bush is unfair. Despite the back-and-forth -- and back-and-forth and back-and-forth -- relationship between the two men over the past decade, McCain seems to be ready to distance himself from Bush yet again. Graham signaled as much in an interview last week, quipping that "it would be news to Bush" to be told that he and McCain were politically close. Be that as it may, John McCain does have a George W. Bush problem.

History helps explain why. Robert G. Beckel, who managed Walter F. Mondale's thoroughly unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1984 and is now a Fox News commentator, summarized the record: Since 1960, candidates running on the ticket of the party that is completing two terms in the White House, hoping to win a third, usually lose. Richard M. Nixon in 1960, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Gerald Ford in 1976 and Al Gore in 2000 are the cases in point. Only George H.W. Bush defied this rule in 1988, in the midst of an economic boom, "but nobody has ever been elected to a third term for the same party in bad economic times," Beckel noted. "No one's ever been elected to a third term when you have an unpopular war. And most importantly, no one has been elected to a third term with an unpopular incumbent president. . . . Yet McCain has all three of those problems."

Political scientists who try to reduce election prognostication to mathematical formulas agree that thanks largely to Bush, McCain's situation is grim. One is Alan Abramowitz of Emory University, who uses a complex mathematical formula based on the sitting president's approval rating on July 1 of the election year, the economic growth rate in the second quarter of that year and a "time for a change" factor based on the number of terms the incumbent party has held the White House. This year, Abramowitz's formula -- which has predicted the winner of the popular vote correctly in every election since 1988 -- says Obama will win easily in November.

So is McCain fated to lose? "As a nation we're due to break those precedents," Graham says. "Yes, the dynamics of this race are very much tilted toward the Democratic Party," partly because the country is eager for change, Graham said in an interview last week, but McCain offers change, too. "With John you can have the best of both worlds. You can have change -- John McCain has a long record of doing things that are nontraditional -- but you can have change that is safe and secure. . . . We have a good story to tell, that the next four years will be different and better than the last four. . . . The direction that we'll take the country in is going to be different than Bush and better than Obama."

"By sheer, dumb luck," observes Dan Schnur, director of communications in McCain's 2000 presidential campaign and now director of the Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, "we [Republicans] ended up nominating the only candidate in the entire field who actually has a chance of winning the general election." How good a chance? "It's an uphill fight," Schnur replied, "if only because he's carrying so much baggage."

George W. Bush may have packed that baggage, but polls indicate that McCain really is carrying it. The latest Washington Post-ABC News Poll taken in mid-August asked voters if they thought a President McCain would "mainly lead the country in a new direction, or mainly continue in George W. Bush's direction?" Fifty-seven percent said they expect McCain to follow the Bush line, including 57 percent of independents. Within that group, more than 70 percent said they planned to vote for Obama.

Bush's approval rating -- 30 percent -- hasn't budged for months. And as speakers in Denver repeatedly noted, McCain sided with Bush on 90 percent of the votes taken in the Senate since 2001. Yet he also defied the president on such high-profile issues as stem cell research, treatment of prisoners and same-sex marriage. That happened often enough, said Steve Bell, longtime political aide to Sen. Pete Domenici (N.M.), that many in the conservative base will never be entirely comfortable with McCain.

McCain is hardly the only Republican with a Bush-induced problem this year. The party's political gurus all fear their brand has been tarnished. The chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, has advised his candidates for election this fall to stay away from St. Paul -- better to stay home and campaign this week than be associated with the national party and its tribulations. Nine of the Republican senators seeking reelection have announced their intention to stay home during the convention.

Bush's scheduled moment in St. Paul tonight was canceled by Hurricane Gustav, and it's hard to find a Republican who thinks McCain will even mention him during the fall campaign. Optimists think, or hope, that because of his reputation as a maverick, McCain can ignore Bush while offering something new. "There's a general belief that John McCain is his own man," Graham says. "That's the only reason that we're 12 points ahead of the party in the polls." He was describing the gap between generic Republican support and McCain's higher numbers, measured in one recent Quinnipiac University poll.

Even Bush, says Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker, would probably encourage his on-again, off-again ally McCain to ignore the incumbent president during this campaign. "Bush is a reasonably good politician. He understands that given his current situation, the best thing is for McCain to be a unique personality." The best outcome for McCain, Gingrich says, is for Obama to become "so big" that he, not Bush or McCain, becomes the biggest issue of the campaign.

Research editor Alice Crites and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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