Thursday, March 06, 2008

The odd couple's latest mating dance

For the sake of sanity, I'm taking a one-day break from the Democratic phantasmagoria, and dwelling instead on the photo op that occurred yesterday at the White House. You probably saw it. There was the newly crowned Republican presidential nominee, John McCain (not wearing a flag pin, by the way), staging his umpteenth awkward love embrace with George W. Bush.

The Rose Garden pictures cried out for cartoon captions. For instance...

McCain's inner thoughts: "This guy is presiding over a $3-trillion war, record-high budget deficits, record-high oil prices, and a record-low dollar when pegged against the euro, and two-thirds of the American people - including the the independents who will decide the election - think he's a buffoon. But if I hide him in a closet, the nutty conservatives will go ballistic on me. So I'm stuck with him."

Bush's inner thoughts: "He was a pain in the butt who got in my way eight years ago, which is why we had to falsely smear him with rumors that he'd fathered a black baby out of wedlock, and a host of other things I knew nothing about. I still don't totally trust him, because he's not always a loyal Bushie. But he's the nominee, so I'm stuck with him."

These two have rarely been comfortable bedfellows. I remember the first mating dance, back in May 2000. Bush, having steamrolled McCain in the Republican primaries, wanted his vanquished foe to endorse him, but for many weeks McCain resisted. Certain memories were still fresh. Bush allies had spread the rumor that McCain had fathered a black child out of wedlock (whereas, in reality, he and his wife had adopted a girl from Bangladesh); and had run TV ads claiming that McCain was hostile to breast cancer research and thus to women with breast cancer (whereas, in reality, he had backed legislation to double the funding of the National Institutes of Health, and, besides, his own sister had breast cancer).

Suffice it to say that McCain had not enjoyed being slimed. Finally, however, he grudingly said, yes, he would endorse. The two men met in Pittsburgh, then emerged to face us journalists. They barely shook hands, and they wore political smiles. McCain even said that he felt like a child being forced to "take the medicine now" for his own good. When asked why he seemed to be having trouble saying the word endorse, he grimace-grinned and mimicked the tone of an errant schoolboy writing on a blackboard after class: "I endorse Governor Bush, I endorse Governor Bush, I endorse Governor Bush!"

In a sense, he's still taking the medicine. He needs Bush to run interference for him, and help cure his ills with the conservative base. He needs Bush to pry some money from the hands of conservative donors. Ideally, he might be inclined to hide Bush in a closet for the next eight months, but he knows that if he distances himself too much, most conservatives will go ballistic.

The problem is, every medicine has its potential side effects. He can't go public with Bush in any of the swing states without risking the ire of independent voters. It's instructive that, in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll autumn matchups, McCain trails Barack Obama by 12 points and Hillary Clinton by six points - primarily because Bush-averse independents run the other way. McCain would prefer that independents see and hear Bush as little as possible.

And independents are not the only concern. Political analyst and Emory University professor Alan Abramowitz, having studied voting behavior in the '06 congressional elections and in the recent Virginia and Wisconsin primaries, warned today that "John McCain's efforts to woo GOP conservatives by stressing his support for the war and his determination to continue President Bush's policies if he is elected are likely to cost him support among moderate-to-liberal Republicans in November."

Abramowitz notes that these Republicans, "dissatisfied with the performance of President Bush in general and with the war in Iraq in particular," defected in sufficient numbers to elect Democratic senators in three red states (Missouri, Montana, Virginia), thereby wresting Senate control away from the GOP - while also contributing to the Democratic takeover of the House. More awkward Bush-hugging could repeat the pattern this year.

Which is probably why McCain chose his words so carefully yesterday. He said that he hoped to schedule some joint events "in keeping with the president's schedule," which he characterized as a "busy schedule."

In translation: "George, I know you don't have all that much to do, given the fact that your lame-duck agenda is going nowhere, but I'd be happy to buy you a new mountain bike to keep you occupied."

Indeed, 36 hours after the Bush-McCain Rose Garden embrace, there was still no mention of the event anywhere on the McCain campaign website.

Naturally, the Bush White House insists that there's no debate going on over whether Bush is an albatross; in the words of press secretary Dana Perino, "It's not normal for the president and the nominee to campaign a lot together."

Oh, really? Back in 1988 - as former Reagan chief of staff Ken Duberstein recalled yesterday - Reagan stumped alongside the senior George Bush in 16 states, including the key battlegrounds of California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

Perhaps what Perino meant to say is that it's not normal for a nominee to campaign with a president in crucial states when the latter is a virtual pariah.