Age before beauty.

Notes from the political sidelines.
Dec. 8 2005 2:03 PM

Age Before Beauty

Impotence is as impotence does.

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But McCain probably wouldn't run from the president even if he weren't running for president. It's no surprise for McCain to forgive Bush; he forgave the Viet Cong. He's a rebel, but he's also a soldier with a deep respect for the office of his commander in chief. While he may be a Bull Moose Republican, he's a lifelong one, and not about to switch parties now.

The more telling transformation over the last two years has been Bush's emergence as a McCain hugger. Unlike the senator from Arizona, Bush is not the sort to embrace those who disagree with him, as McCain has so often done—and continues to do. McCain is a serial apologizer, admitting mistakes as soon as he makes them; Bush makes a lot more but hasn't thought of one yet.

So, why has a White House once off limits to McCainiacs found a front-row seat for McCain himself? Because for the last two years, Bush has needed McCain even more than K Street republicans hate him. The Bush campaign showcased McCain at the 2004 convention, and the president kept him by his side on the campaign trail.

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This year, with war and scandal jeopardizing his presidency, Bush needs to hug a reform-minded war hero even more. Vice President Cheney's public star has fallen even farther than Bush's. Doing events with McCain is proof that Bush understands you don't campaign with the vice president you have, you campaign with the vice president you might wish or want to have.

Moose and Squirrel: Dickerson wonders why Bush's unpopularity doesn't rub off on McCain. The question also works in reverse: Why won't any of McCain's popularity rub off on Bush?

The answer is simple, and it helps explain why he's willing to risk a Bush embrace: This president is no John McCain. No matter how often the two hug, voters can see they're just friends.

In fact, the real irony is that even as he stands next to Bush on the stump, McCain has painted a clearer picture than any other wannabe of just how different a president he would be from George Bush.

Every day, in every way, McCain reminds Republicans that he represents the main-street conservatism that Bush left behind. "I'm so disgusted with the way my party is wasting money," he told Stephen Moore of the  Wall Street Journal. "It's embarrassing." Moore concluded that "more than any other first-tier GOP candidate in 2008, Mr. McCain has shrewdly tapped into the rage that conservatives are feeling" over the Medicare drug bill, runaway spending, and congressional pork.

Likewise, McCain's support for the mission in Iraq but outspoken impatience with Rumsfeld and the Bush administration's bumbling execution of the war appeals to Republicans who take the old-fashioned view that America should only go to wars if it intends to win them.

Don't let the hugs fool you. McCain isn't soft-pedaling his differences with Bushism. He's standing on top of the Straight Talk Express, shouting them at the top of his lungs.

Earlier this month, he wrote a Newsweek cover story disputing the White House on torture. He routinely defends his opposition to Bush's tax cuts as "way too tilted to the rich."

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