The Bush-McCain Face-Off

Months ago, when the Republican senator who is often dubbed a maverick finally started campaigning with George W. Bush – after news reports noted that John Kerry had delicately discussed with McCain the idea of McCain becoming Kerry's running mate – the question asked by political commentators (and cable talk show consumers) was, what does McCain want? Did he want to make peace with the GOP establishment so he could run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 (when he would be 72 years old)? Was he looking to be secretary of defense? Was he hoping that Bush would bounce Dick Cheney and put McCain on the ticket?

The obvious answer was that McCain was just yielding to the overwhelming D's-and-R's dynamic of Washington's binary culture. In his case, the issue was whether McCain was a Republican or not. And if he did want to continue being a GOPer in good standing, then he had to do right by the Family. (Think The Sopranos.) That meant putting aside the resentment and anger he must have felt toward the Bush clan, which – take your pick – ran or countenanced an ugly and vicious campaign against McCain in the South Carolina primary in 2000 that included questioning McCain's commitment to veterans and spreading rumors that McCain had been brainwashed in a Vietnamese prison camp, that his adopted daughter was a love-child he had had with a prostitute and that his wife was a junkie.

So this year McCain sucked it up and hit the trail for Bush, even as the Bush brigade was mounting the same sort of trash-and-slash attack against McCain's colleague, John Kerry. At least, McCain could point to the war in Iraq as a point of agreement with Bush. Though McCain, according to a McCain adviser, has not accepted the neoconservatives' argument (adopted by Bush) that the Iraq war is necessary as an initial step in remaking the region, he believed that because Saddam Hussein posed a possible threat and was such a tyrant he needed "to be taken out."

But maybe there was another reason beyond loyalty to the party and to the commander in chief why McCain saddled up with Bush. Perhaps he wanted to get near enough to knife Bush – metaphorically speaking, of course. As in, keep your friends close and your enemies closer. (Think The Godfather.)

Yesterday on Fox News Sunday, McCain whacked Bush on Iraq. He accused Bush of making "serious mistakes after the initial successes by not having enough troops there on the ground, by allowing the looting, by not securing the borders. There was a number of things that we did. Most of it can be traced back to not having sufficient numbers of troops there." When he said "we," McCain actually meant Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice. He noted that the Bush administration has allowed insurgents to establish sanctuaries – such as in Fallujah – where anti-American rebels or terrorists can be trained and harbored. McCain, saying he still supports the US mission in Iraq, was making a serious charge: that Bush and his gang have screwed things up tremendously.

Anchor Chris Wallace then asked what seemed to be a Bush-friendly question: "Some have suggested that what we're seeing, to use a Vietnam analogy, is kind of a rolling Tet offensive to try to break the will of the American and Iraqi people and to play a role in defeating President Bush. Do you think that's what's going on?"

While other GOPers have tried to make such a point to shore up support for Bush among potential voters, McCain would not. "I don't think they're interested so much," he replied, "in defeating President Bush."

McCain challenged Bush's assertion that progress is under way in Iraq, noting "the situation has obviously been somewhat deteriorating, to say the least." Bush, he remarked, "is not being "as straight as maybe we'd like to see." McCain called for the declassification of the recent National Intelligence Estimate that raised the possibility of civil war in Iraq. "The key," said McCain, who urged more extensive US military action in Iraq, is to "recognize those mistakes, correct those mistakes, and prevail." He added, "I'd like to see more of an overall plan articulated by the president."

McCain's remarks were not what a consultant would call politically useful to the fellow whom McCain is supposedly trying to help get reelected. These comments came the day before John Kerry was to give a major speech blistering Bush for mistakes and miscalculations in Iraq. McCain – as well as Republican senators Chuck Hagel and Richard Lugar, who on other talk shows each said the administration's handling of postwar Iraq has been incompetent – softened up Bush for Kerry's blows. But McCain's words, given his standing in the media, hit the hardest.

Earlier this month, an editor at The Nation, dreaming of magic-bullet scenarios, asked me whether Secretary of State Colin Powell might break with Bush in October and swing the election to Kerry. Not a chance I said, read this. Powell is completely in the tank for the Bush crew, enabling the neocons. But McCain – now he might cause further difficult for his "good friend" in the White House in the final weeks of the election.

The Bush campaign eagerly embraced McCain early in the summer when Bush was slipping in the polls due to the mess in Iraq. So when McCain (rather than Kerry) says Bush hasn't articulated a plan for Iraq, can the White House dismiss this serious statement? It sure cannot be pooh-poohed by Bush's mouthpieces as partisan rhetoric. Might such a remark cause Bushies to wonder whether McCain infiltrated the Bush campaign in order to better zing the man whose lieutenants once bitterly and scurrilously attacked McCain's family and questioned McCain's loyalty to veterans?

The McCain-Bush face-off has been one of the most-watched soap operas in Washington. Now it appears that when McCain hit the campaign trail for Bush this summer, the conflict was not ultimately resolved. A few more twists and turns could come, and in this relationship, McCain at the moment has more power. (Remember McCain's home state of Arizona could end up being a key state on November 2.) With his recent comments, McCain has essentially called out the administration and undermined Bush's spin. If McCain continues to talk so candidly, he will be serving as a wingman for Kerry. Is this calculation or coincidence? Revenge being served out of a deep-freezer? McCain likes to promote his reputation as a straight-talker, but next time I see him in a green room, I'm not going to bother asking him to answer the question. Let him do what he's gotta do – especially if it's personal. Anyway, who would want to know the end of this melodrama before the final page?


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