How McCain gains by embracing Bush.

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Nov. 29 2005 6:30 PM

The Bush Hugger

How McCain gains by embracing Bush.

McCain: Touchy-feely like a fox
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McCain: Touchy-feely like a fox

George Bush's popularity remains at record-low levels, so most Republicans looking to the next election aren't as keen as they once were to stand by his side. Even a politician as faithfully partisan as Sen. Rick Santorum declined to be seen with the president when he visited Pennsylvania earlier in the month. Curiously, the one exception to this rule is the president's old arch-foe John McCain, who spent another day with Bush as the president promoted his plans for immigration reform on Nov. 28.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk. Follow him on Twitter.

McCain is leaning toward running for president in 2008, but he seems unconcerned that moderates and independents will penalize him for backing a president they no longer support. The swing voters' attraction to McCain is, in fact, what Santorum himself will be counting on when he welcomes McCain to Pennsylvania to campaign for him later this week. Why is McCain alone immune to the presidential taint?

McCain can embrace Bush without being hurt by the affiliation because voters think he's winking as he does it. McCain's fans see his stumping for Bush and his policies as completely pro forma and insincere. "I genuinely like him," McCain insists to friends, referring to Bush. Remembering how roughly Bush treated him in the 2000 primaries, the friends don't believe the senator, either.

Heightening the paradox is that McCain's nomination for sainthood is based largely on his reputation for unorthodox candor. In this case, the McCain crowd thinks he is so candid he can't possibly be telling the truth. And so he is free to make a show of embracing Bush, whereas politicians with no special reputation for honesty are taken at their word when they make patently insincere gestures of shunning the president. McCain has reversed the political gravity. When Bush's approval ratings go down, other politicians fear being dragged down with him. For McCain, the worse things get for Bush, the nobler his helping hand appears. 

McCain's reason for embracing the president is self-evident. In the 2000 primaries, McCain not only ran against the establishment candidate, George Bush, he ran against the lobbyists, money raisers, and party functionaries that make up the establishment itself. When he ran hard against those people, they rallied around his chief opponent, and he lost. Bailing out the president in his moment of need endears him to the party powers—or at least helps sap the force of their potential resistance to the possibility of his being nominated in 2008. 

McCain's rapprochement with Bush got going in 2004, when the senator campaigned with Bush to help him win back moderate Republicans disenchanted over the war in Iraq. In a gesture seen by millions of viewers, he sat with Bush's family during one of the presidential debates. Afterward, McCain criticized John Kerry's views on national security, despite his friendship with the Democratic nominee. When rumors surfaced during the race that McCain might replace Dick Cheney, McCain campaigned with the vice president to stop the whispers. "He was there whenever we needed him," said a Bush staff member days before the election. Recently, when Cheney refuted charges that the president manipulated prewar intelligence, he quoted the senator: "As John McCain says, it is a lie to say that the president lied."

This support for Bush is yielding support for McCain in turn. Just three weeks ago, McCain's political action committee took in $1 million in just one week. Many of the professional Republicans who helped to kill his candidacy when he ran against Bush in 2000 now write him $5,000 checks—the full amount allowed by law.

McCain still has some work to do with the rank-and-file Republicans, though. A Cook Political Report poll of McCain's standing in the party shows registered Republicans are still ambivalent about whether he is a true Republican. This suggests that when he appears with Bush, his opponents may think they see him winking, too.

Is it right for the captain of the Straight Talk Express to profit from voters who see a nudge-nudge in his support of Bush? McCain has so far mostly walked the line by embracing Bush on issues where they really do agree. Only 38 percent  think it was worth going to war in Iraq, and yet McCain is more hawkish than Bush. He has called for more troops in Iraq—a position only 7 percent of  Americans support. McCain sounds genuinely convincing in his support of  Bush's Supreme Court picks. "Elections have consequences," he has said repeatedly, arguing that only violent opposition should derail a nominee. McCain has hardly endorsed Bush's policies uniformly or uncritically. He's been leading the fight against torturing prisoners, and his endorsements of the Iraq invasion are often paired with criticism of how badly the administration has botched the execution.

The historical animosity between the Bush and McCain camps runs deep enough that it's hard to imagine that his hugs have any personal content. And if he runs for president, the pantomime will face a more exacting audience. GOP loyalists who have been newly impressed by McCain's support of Bush won't tolerate his hopping around. If the senator wants to keep the Bush faithful happy, his base in the middle and the media will surely erode.

So, which way will he go? In 2000, McCain revolted against the demands of party loyalists and the result was a rather spectacular flameout. I was there when he blew up about Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell in the back of his campaign bus before Super Tuesday. He told us that it was part of his job "to stand up and take on the forces of evil," referring to the two men. "I can't steer the Republican Party if those two individuals have the influence that they have on the party today." It was classic McCain: cranky, impetuous, and more honest than anyone in his party was willing to be. Running as he still was in a Republican primary, he had to apologize for his remarks a few days later. When Republicans in South Carolina demanded that he stay out of the debate in their state over whether the flag of the Confederacy should fly above the state capitol, McCain obliged. His position was so tortured, he had to read from a crafted statement he kept in his pocket to keep it straight. The charade ate at him so much that he went back to South Carolina after the campaign to scold himself in public for not saying what he believed: The flag should not fly above the state capitol.

Fortunately for McCain, he doesn't have to win over all the Republicans he alienated last time. He just needs enough to add to his moderates and independents voting in the GOP primaries to lock up the nomination. Still, even that will require a constant and complicated balancing act. I used to think there was no way a second McCain run could be as unpredictable and dramatic as the first one. Watching him tell his party's establishment to stuff it in 2000 was one of the great moments I've watched in politics. But it may be just as exciting to see him try to avoid telling the powers that be where to put it this time around.