John Dickerson discusses McCain's Bush problem.

John Dickerson discusses McCain's Bush problem.

John Dickerson discusses McCain's Bush problem.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
July 31 2008 3:02 PM

The Bush Problem

John Dickerson takes readers' questions about how McCain should handle his ties to the president.

Slate political correspondent John Dickerson was online on Washingtonpost.com to chat with readers about John McCain's campaign and how the candidate should handle President Bush at the Republican convention. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

John Dickerson: Hello everyone. Lots happening in politics today. I look forward to your questions.

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Alexandria, VA: Thanks very much for attending this chat.

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With the initial disclosure that I am an avid Dem, may I ask whether you think there would be value for the Dem spokespeople to entirely stop referring to McCain, and instead adopt the style of "Bush-McCain," as in "the Bush-McCain position," the "Bush-McCain platform," etc? And would it be harmful to Obama to start doing that himself as well?

John Dickerson: Very good question. It's already happening. The Obama campaign has been doing this for some time and they'll keep at it until December. Clinton did this in 96 tying Dole to Newt Gingrich.

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San Diego, CA: How long until we see a 527 ad with the creepy McCain-Bush hug photo?

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John Dickerson: You don't have to wait for a 527. The hug (and the kiss) were in Obama's first ad hitting McCain.

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New York: John, hope you can take an early question. I agree Bush is unpopular, but don't the GOP stalwarts at the convention comprise that 20 percent who still like him? Thanks.

John Dickerson: Yes the convention folk still like Bush (although at 65% his approval among Republicans is low). So McCain has to be careful. He can't look like he's casting Bush aside. There will be lots of talk of his effective response to 9/11 and then they'll try to talk about popular Republicans like Arnold.

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Washington, D.C.: Will Slate be doing an Obama/Carter thing like this? When Carter was president...unemployment was double what it is now and we were literally being take hostage all over the world. Seems like a more astute comparison, considering their policy similarities.

John Dickerson: Nice try! There may be similarities but we're talking about a nearly 30 year gap. As a political matter the link to Bush is rather obvious and therefore of greater peril to the nominee whose party leader is at very low approval ratings. That isn't to say McCain didn't try to link Obama to Carter, but he ultimately dropped the idea because it didn't work.

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Kingston, Ontario: Mr. Dickerson: No matter what McCain's original intentions were, it seems he is being forced back into the standard GOP playbook. The opponent cannot be trusted because 1. he is un-American, too concerned about foreigners, etc. 2. he is a defeatist, doesn't support the troops, etc. 3. he will raise taxes, believes that the government should be involved in the economy, etc. These charges have been highly successful in the past. Is there any reason to think they won't be again? Regardless of the actual facts of the case, they cater to an entrenched mindset.

John Dickerson: You've got a very good point. They might work again (though Obama's offbase charge about racism dilutes his more reasonable claims that McCain has been making a series of baseless claims recently). But I wrote last week why this is a problem for McCain: 1. His brand was supposed to be more high-minded. Let's see if independents bolt because of this new harsher attack. 2. People are sick of this kind of campaigning. McCain will be seen as the slasher and people will forget Obama took the first swings (which he did).

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Northvillle, N.Y. : Okay, an obvious question, but I'm sure others want to know: what does he do with the real president, Cheney? Prime time? Middle of the night? Other?

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John Dickerson: I don't know what they do with Cheney. McCain's not a big fan of Cheney's so maybe they send him hunting.

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Champaign, Ill.: Hello Mr. Dickerson. Thank you for your great pieces at Slate. The recent polls baffle me. What effect can we expect the conventions to have on the candidates' (as of late, seemingly stagnant) popularity? Will they both receive bumps and cancel each other out, remaining strangely close in the national polls? Or will the visual difference between McCain's convention troubles that you describe here and Obama's stadium-sized victory speech lead to starker differences in popularity?

John Dickerson: The polls baffle me too. They should. It's too early. People are paying attention but not making up their minds much, I don't think. In a lot of ways the polls haven't moved or if they have the movement has been somewhat meaningless—statistical blips or the result of low information voters picking up on the latest ad they've seen. A lot of people out there are undecided. Having said that, and adding normal pound of salt: Some things I'd like to know the answer to. The swing of independents to McCain in FL? Is that about drilling? Also, 17% of D's say they'd vote for McCain only 9% of R'say they'd pick Obama. I thought McCain had the base problem.

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New York: Bush is accused of damaging the Republican Party and diminishing its chances at gaining either the presidency or a majority in congress, but I have the feeling that he really doesn't care—and that he never really did care. If this is true, what does he care about? Only his legacy? Or did 9/11 completely obscure any other issues/beliefs for him? Thanks.

John Dickerson: I think he does care about his party and his legacy. He thinks his legacy will be peace in the Middle East through a free Iraq. He thinks he'll be proven right after he's dead. On politics though, he used to talk about an entire generation of people who would go into the Republican Party saying " I am a Bush Republican," the way they did with Reagan.

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St. Paul, Minn.: Hi John—Thank you for taking questions today. It's always good to hear your insights on Washington Week as well. My question is a little broader than the convention, but somewhat related. It's clear that Sen. McCain, despite promises to do things differently than Bush, is adopting Bush's playbook in terms of the campaign so far (going after Sen. Obama on character issues—witness the "skipped visit with the troops" ad, the "Obama is too famous to be president" ad). Is it your sense that, this time around, these tactics are not being well-received? And even if that's the case, might they still work well enough to hurt Obama?

John Dickerson: Hey, thanks for watching Washington Week,the show in which I somehow can't talk at less than 100 mph. I think these attacks do damage to a candidate with what we might call a nontraditional résumé, but McCain has a big downside I think. He can't talk about Straight Talk when he's been running the ads he has.

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St. Paul, Minn.: John,

Love your reporting keep up the good work!!

Do you think it's possible President Bush won't even speak at the convention? His approval ratings are as low as Nixon's, but didn't have the "benefits of resigning" (as you mentioned in your piece). Could these ratings cause McCain's campaign to ask him not to show? What do they have to lose, especially after the bad summer McCain has had thus far? If Bush does speak at the convention, will this be the first time a sitting President will significantly hurt his own party's nominee by giving a convention speech? Looking forward to my hometown being the center of the storm.

John Dickerson: He can't duck out now. It's on the schedule and the WH has announced it.

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Crestwood, N.Y.: Thanks for the article; I was wondering about this myself. Since the attendees are mostly big fans of Bush, I would think he'll give a valedictory talking about how he saved us from another attack and made the tough choices, blah blah blah with no apologies. A Giuliani speech; 911 all the time. Anything else would be hugely out of character—can't you hear "My Way" playing in the background already? My question is how the nets and cable will cover it, or if they will cover it at all live.

Also, has McCain taken on so many Rove people, neocons and federalistas at this point that the strategy regarding the Bush appearance won't necessarily be that of the candidate, but one made by loyal Bushies? The guy currently calling the shots, who is behind all these crypto-racist ads, is from the Rove family; the former McCain advisers have been shunted to the side.

John Dickerson: I haven't seen a single ad that fits this description or comes close.

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NYC: Bush had several heavy handed domestic policies that mostly failed (Social Security, immigration). How much do you think it hurts McCain that he's more of the same?

John Dickerson: Interesting question. SS was a huge failure. People didn't want it. For a time, the country did want "comprehensive immigration reform." McCain is all over the map on these two issues. He was for SS reform and has talked about it recently (getting in trouble with his base for appearing to countenance a payroll tax increase). On immigration he's moved around some but still ticks off huge portions of his base because he supported what they called amnesty.

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Re: Bush's 20 percent: His base, his supporters will be there. Will we see a convention dedicated to them or to the TV audience that checks in for about 5 minutes a night, 3 times during the week?

John Dickerson: The convention is all about the TV audience.

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St. Louis: Is the Presidential race actually closer than the polls indicate. The reason I ask is I work as a door greeter at a large "box" store, and the only Obama campaign buttons I see are worn only by African-Americans. Seems like even "yellow dog" white Democrats are hesitant about their support. Or, is my impression wrong?

John Dickerson: Hard to say where the race is. It's a horrible year for Republicans so McCain should be in worse shape. But people still have doubts about Obama. McCain is trying to increase those doubts. Here's the question though: when people pay attention to Obama will they buy in. That's what happened in many places during the primaries. He was stuck in July 07 and then he took off—slowly up up he went.

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Pure Cynicism: Do something that temporarily worked for Clinton when the Lewinsky stuff was supposed to be first breaking: Find a new country to bomb, so he gets called away from the convention. How's that work out?

John Dickerson: My former colleague Hugh Sidey used to joke, quoting a Johnson adviser during Vietnam: "we need a new war." Not a joke any more...

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Helena, Montana: President Bush has recently given us numerous glimpses of his sense of rhythm and tap dancing skills. I suggest giving him a 4 or 5 minute slot (and a company of backup dancers) to star in a well-produced number ala the Tony or Grammy Award shows.

This could be construed as below the US President's dignity, but it would be a fitting swan song... and party conventions are all about theatre these days anyway.

John Dickerson: There might be dancers outside the arena during the speech to distract from it.

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Alexandria, Va.: I would just like to comment that it would be a mistake to disrespect the President in any way. Even though his approval ratings are very low, there is a core group of people that really love President Bush. It's amazing to me how high his approval ratings were after 9/11, but then when having to make the tough decisions to prevent another 9/11 many people change their opinions completely. This is the price you pay by not being a poll driven President. Unlike Bill Clinton who didn't kill Bin laden when he had the chance for fear or what the rest of the world would think.

John Dickerson: I don't think there will be any disrespect. I just think the McCain camp will do everything short of putting an enormous book on page and actually having the candidate turn the page.

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Re: St. Louis: The example of "buy-in" I've seen bandied about is the 1980 example. Carter and Reagan were even going into the debates, where neither side really 'won' but people overcame their doubts. So far, it seems like people lean Obama but have doubts rather than are split between Obama-McCain.

John Dickerson: Yes, this example has gotten lots of play. Makes sense to me except for the fact that these historical analogies usually have one huge flaw which we don't discover until after the analogy breaks down. The alternative is Ford/Carter. Carter was up by a big margin but then Ford chipped away and only barely lost because people were worried about Carter's untestedness.

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Green Bay, Wisc.: It seems that the latest Republican scandals (Sen. Stevens, in particular, but also the embezzlement mess with the Republican committees, etc.) have been breaking in time to affect the convention. How will they avoid the glow of indictments and inquiries affecting their big show?

John Dickerson: By holding it in the dark? It's a problem. The Republican brand is a mess.

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Ashland, Mo: The most popular regular TV program is American Idol, which is seen by less than 15 percent of the population. Even fewer people watch the evening news. Newspaper circulation is declining. Few people read many books. This isn't the '60s (or even '70s or '80s) any more. Is it possible political reporters and politicians assume more people are paying attention than actually are? That, in fact, politically-oriented people now live in a bubble or echo chamber instead of the "real" world?

John Dickerson: You can never go wrong questioning whether we all live in a bubble. I think people aren't paying much attestation-- certainly not now. But I think conventions play out in local papers and on the national news in a way the normal day to day doesn't play out. So I think conventions can punch through. Also, team Obama can work hard to make it stick.

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Baltimore: Love the Republican effort to tie Obama to Carter. Not only is Carter's administration ancient history for those 40 and under, but Carter (1) named Paul Volcker Fed chief with the mandate to choke off inflation, which Volcker did after years of its rise under Nixon/Ford (2) forged a still extant piece between Israel and Egypt after those countries had fought 3 wars and (3) correctly prophesied the coming energy crisis and actually began substantive work on alternative energy sources by the federal government, all of which were undone by the Reagan administration.

I would say that wasn't a bad record for four years. The fact is, if the Iranian hostage rescue had worked, Carter would have had a second term and Reagan would not have gotten 200 plus Marines blown to bits in Beirut.

John Dickerson: You make a good case though I think Obama won't make that case. He's also got to keep his distance from Carte on the Israel question. I wonder what they'll do with Carter actually. The hero of the convention will be Kennedy, if he's well enough, Carter' 80 primary opponent.

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Odessa ,Tx: Put a sack over his head & duct tape his mouth?

John Dickerson: The Secret Service discourages this behavior.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: I was just sitting at the bar with some of my fellow Pennsylvanians, debating whether today to turn to God or to our Gods to get out of our dispair, when we saw the new commercial where Britney Spears and Paris Hilton support Obama. We realized that if Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, whom we presume are Republicans, can support Obama, then Obama must not be all that bad afterall.

John Dickerson: I hear many people do still drink at lunch.

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Seattle, WA: Somewhat cynically, is there a way for Bush to speak in a way that's only covered by Fox News or other conservative outlet? That'd be my pick.

John Dickerson: I think it would only happen if Bush held up the Fox logo. It'll be interesting to see what the networks do though. Will they carry the president live?

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Dallas, Tx: Are there any updates on Debates or Co-Hosted Town Halls? Is it going to be a restrictive as 2004?

John Dickerson: There are supposed to be 4 debates but that'll shrink and the town hall idea seems dead for the moment. The Obama team kinda dinked out on it though part of the current back and forth is about whether the idea will come back

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John Dickerson: Okay everyone, I'm off. Thanks very much for your questions.