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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Frank Rich on the Bush-McCain Third Term

Op-Ed Columnist
McCain Can Run, but Bush Won’t Hide
May 18, 2008

THE biggest gift President Bush has given his party this year was to keep his daughter’s wedding nearly as private as Connie Corleone’s. Now that his disapproval rating has reached the Nixon nadir of negativity, even a joyous familial ritual isn’t enough to make the country glad to see him. The G.O.P.’s best hope would be for both the president and Dick Cheney to lock themselves in a closet until the morning after Election Day.

Republicans finally recognized the gravity of their situation three days after Jenna Bush took her vows in Crawford. As Hillary Clinton romped in West Virginia, voters in Mississippi elected a Democrat in a Congressional district that went for Bush-Cheney by 25 percentage points just four years ago. It’s the third “safe” Republican House seat to fall in a special election since March.

Party leaders have been haplessly trying to identify possible remedies ever since. It didn’t help that their recent stab at an Obamaesque national Congressional campaign slogan, “The Change You Deserve,” was humiliatingly identified as the advertising pitch for the anti-depressant Effexor. (If they’re going to go the pharmaceutical route, “Viva Viagra” might be more to the point.) Yet for all the Republican self-flagellation, it’s still not clear that the party even understands the particular dimensions of its latest defeat and its full implications for both Congressional races and John McCain in November.

The Mississippi election was actually a runoff, required by law after a preliminary vote left neither candidate with the required 50 percent. In the last round, on April 22, the Democrat, Travis Childers, beat the Republican, Greg Davis, 49 percent to 46 percent. (The rest went to minor candidates.) On Tuesday, that margin increased dramatically: the Republican remained at 46 percent while the Democrat jumped to 54 percent.

What happened in the intervening three weeks helps explain why. The G.O.P. didn’t merely step up its expensive negative campaign, attempting to take down Mr. Childers (who is a white, conservative Democrat) by linking him with Mr. Obama, a ranting Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Nancy Pelosi. It also brought in the party’s big guns. Mr. Bush and Mr. McCain recorded mass phone pitches for Mr. Davis. Karl Rove and Mr. Cheney campaigned for him.

The vice president’s visit was last Monday, the centerpiece of a get-out-the-vote rally in DeSoto County, a G.O.P. stronghold. “We’ll put our shoulders to the wheel for John McCain,” the vice president promised as he bestowed his benediction on Mr. Davis. Well, he got out the vote all right. In the election results the next day, the Childers total in DeSoto County increased 142 percent, while the Davis count went up only 47 percent.

The district as a whole is the second whitest in Mississippi. (Its black population is 27.2 percent.) It’s the sole district Mr. Obama lost to Mrs. Clinton in the state’s Democratic primary in March. Yet even in this unlikely political terrain the combination of a race-based Republican campaign and the personal intervention of Mr. Cheney energized enough white moderates and black voters to flip the district to the Democrats. Keep in mind, it’s the Deep South we’re talking about here. Imagine how the lethal combination of the Bush-Cheney brand and backlash-inducing G.O.P. race-baiting could whip up a torrential turnout by young voters, black voters and independents in true swing states farther north and west.

Just 36 hours after the Mississippi debacle, Mr. McCain tried to distance himself from the administration by flip-flopping on his signature issue, Iraq, suddenly endorsing just the kind of timetable for withdrawal he has characterized as “surrender” when proposed by Democrats or Mitt Romney. (When Mr. McCain proposes it, he labels it “victory.”) But hardly had Mr. McCain spoken than his message was upstaged by Mr. Bush’s partisan political speech in Israel. The president implied that Mr. Obama would have enabled the Nazis even more foolishly than his own grandfather, Prescott Bush, did in the 1930s when he maintained “investment relationships with Hitler’s Germany,” as Kevin Phillips delicately describes it in “American Dynasty.”

Mr. McCain’s Iraq stunt was his second effort in a week to flee Mr. Bush, following a speech bemoaning administration inaction on climate change. These gambits were in turn preceded by Mr. McCain’s attack on the White House response to Hurricane Katrina. Too bad he took this strong stand nearly three years after it might have sped relief to those suffering in New Orleans.

The McCain campaign is hoping that such showy, if tardy, departures from Bush-Cheney doctrine will constitute a galaxy of Sister Souljah moments, each with headlines reading “McCain Breaks With Bush on...” and the usual knee-jerk press references to Mr. McCain as a “maverick.” Enough of these, you see, and those much-needed independent voters might be flimflammed into believing that the G.O.P. candidate bears no responsibility for the administration’s toxically unpopular policies.

You can’t blame him for trying. Independents favor Democrats over Republicans on most issues, according to the April New York Times/CBS News poll, including the economy (by 30 points), Iraq (by 13 points) and health care (48 points).

But are independents suckers? They’d have to be to fall for the pitch that Mr. McCain is an apostate in his own party in 2008. He has been an outspoken Bush defender since helping him sell the Iraq war in 2002 and barnstorming for him in 2004. Despite Mr. McCain’s campaign claims to the contrary, he never publicly called for the firing of Donald Rumsfeld. He is still one of the president’s most stalwart supporters in Congress, even signing on to the president’s wildly unpopular veto of an expansion of children’s health insurance.

Mr. McCain’s one major domestic policy rebellion, over the Bush tax cuts, has long since been ditched. Last Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” his economic surrogate, Carly Fiorina, implied that Mr. McCain would make budgetary ends meet by cutting earmarks — federal pork that, in her inflated estimate, amounted to $42 billion over the past two years. But even if he cut all $42 billion, total federal spending would still be reduced by only 0.78 percent.

Hard as it is for Mr. McCain to run from the Bush policies he supports, it will be far harder to escape from Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney themselves. When Mr. McCain accepted Mr. Bush’s endorsement at the White House in March, he referred three times to the president’s “busy schedule,” as if wishing aloud that the lame-duck incumbent would have no time to appear at, say, get-out-the-vote rallies. Alas, Mr. Bush and company are not going gently into retirement.

Just look at Mr. Rove. Some Democrats are outraged that he is now employed as a pundit by Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal as well as Fox News. Instead of complaining, they should be thrilled that Mr. Rove keeps inviting Republican complacency by constantly locating silver linings in the party’s bad news. His ubiquitous TV presence as a thinly veiled McCain surrogate has the added virtue of wrapping the Republican ticket in a daily and suffocating Bush bearhug, since Mr. Rove is far more synonymous with his former boss than Mr. Obama is with his former pastor.

The Democrats can only hope that Mr. Rove will be a color commentator, so to speak, at the conventions. The parties’ weeklong infomercials are shaping up as quite a study in contrasts. For all the fears of a Democratic civil war, the planets may be aligning for a truce, and possibly a celebration. As fate has it, the nominee’s acceptance speech is scheduled for the night of Aug. 28, exactly 45 years after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. electrified the nation with “I Have a Dream.”

The next day brings another anniversary: Mr. McCain turns 72. And then, on Sept. 1, comes the virtually all-white G.O.P. vaudeville in Minneapolis-St. Paul. You’ll be pleased to know the show will go on despite the fact that the convention manager, chosen by the McCain campaign, had to resign last weekend after being exposed as the chief executive of a lobbying and consulting firm hired by the military junta in Myanmar.

The conventioneers will arrive via the airport whose men’s room was immortalized by a Republican senator still serving the good people of Idaho. This will be a most picturesque backdrop to the party’s eternal platform battles over family values, from same-sex marriage to abortion.

For good measure, antiwar demonstrators from within the G.O.P. — Ron Paul devotees — could provide at least a smidgen of the 1968-style disruptions the Democrats may avoid. In April, the Nevada Republican state convention abruptly adjourned in midsession after the Paul forces won rule changes. The Los Angeles Times reported last week that other Paul cadres, operating below the national press’s radar, have also been fighting guerrilla battles “at county and state conventions from Washington and Missouri to Maine and Mississippi.”

Already one of the national convention’s de facto hosts — Minnesota’s endangered Senator Norm Coleman — is frantically trying to save his seat by disowning his record as an Iraq war booster and disentangling himself from the president. Good luck! But how can Mr. McCain escape the dread specter of this White House at the convention? Surely Mr. Bush will exercise his prerogative to address the nation in prime time.

Unless, of course, Labor Day week just happens to be the perfect moment for a second Bush daughter to tie the knot in Crawford.

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