The Bushification of John McCain

Senator John McCain is in a high-profile fight with President Bush over the Administration's torture policy. But even as McCain publicly challenges Bush -- gracing the cover of Newsweek with a personal essay which argues that America's image is at risk -- the 2008 presidential hopeful has also been discreetly working to prove his conservative Bush credentials to right-wing activists.

McCain remembers that his 2000 campaign went down in flames when he ran as a sharp alternative to the left of George Bush. His popularity in the rest of America could not help him; radical conservative activists shut him down in preseason.

McCain won't make that mistake again. Now he's trying to run as the closest thing to George Bush.

It is the "Bushification" of John McCain, and it is awkward.

The bad blood between the two men has been infamous since 2000, when Bush's campaign lied about McCain's family and war service, and McCain told Bush to "get out of the gutter."

But during Bush's reelection in 2004, McCain strained to embrace his former rival -- literally. In their first joint appearance, they hugged dramatically before 6,000 soldiers at a Fort Lewis rally. Those events made for great campaign visuals. Yet while most Americans saw McCain's big heart, Republican leaders saw hungry ambition.

Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative magazine National Review, recently described that campaign bear hug as nothing but proof of "the senator's presidential ambitions." Lowry argues it's just part of McCain's scheme to get "the Right to stop loathing him." In targeted moves since the election, McCain has continued his Bushification by changing positions on conservative priorities like creationism, gay marriage and tax cuts.

This summer, he told the Arizona Daily Star about his newfound support for teaching creationism, (which many evangelicals are now calling "Intelligent Design"). That's a big change from 2000, when McCain declared it was an issue for local school boards -- and found himself outflanked by Bush on the right. The 2000 Bush campaign proclaimed creationism "ought to be taught." McCain may hope this 2005 reversal will be old news by 2008, but the Daily Star's headline still blared that, "McCain sounds like presidential hopeful."

In August, McCain announced his support for a strict anti-gay marriage ballot initiative in Arizona. Arizona state law already bans gay marriage, so the move is mostly symbolic. But it may appease conservative activists, who detested McCain's July 2004 vote against the anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment. Back then, McCain blasted it as "antithetical in every way to the core philosophy of Republicans."

Then in September, McCain delivered a whopper by caving on a key disagreement with Bush: tax cuts.

As the costs of Hurricane Katrina mounted, McCain went on national television and told Chris Mathews the Bush tax cuts must be maintained. But McCain voted against those tax cuts.

In fact, he was one of only two Republicans to oppose Bush's signature 2001 tax cut. Given the surging costs of Katrina, Iraq and Medicare, there is no policy rationale for reversing his position now. The only rationale is political pandering. And that's exactly how some influential conservatives see it. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, recently said that although McCain has "flip-flopped on a number of issues," he is still "anti-taxpayer" because "he's voted against every tax cut."

Yet the mainstream media is so attached to McCain's maverick image, most journalists didn't cover the tax reversal.

Of course, new positions alone won't turn McCain into George Bush. So McCain has been talking with Bush's message guru, Mark Mckinnon, for some help -- and a 2008 presidential campaign. The Dallas Morning News reported that McKinnon has "committed" to helping McCain in a "second presidential bid."

But do all these moves prove that McCain is pursuing Bushification to appease right-wing Republicans before 2008? How can anyone know for sure?

Just listen to John McCain.

This year he told the New Yorker, "I'm extremely popular -- it's some of the party apparatchiks who still harbor bad feelings toward me. But it is a little hard for them to do that now, because of my strong support for Bush." If that was not clear enough, he touted the early results: "Particularly since the 2004 campaign, there has been a great softening of this dislike for me."

It is rare to see a popular politician mimicking a president with much lower approval ratings. (Bush has crashed into the 30s in several major polls.) Yet as McCain continues his Bushification to win the Republican base, he may alienate the very Americans he needs to win a general election.

Moderate voters were supposedly attracted to McCain's reputation for integrity and independence. If they discover that independence is nothing but a disposable sales pitch from another politician, they may oppose him. McCain must stop pandering to the radical right if he wants to hold the center.

That is why the Bushification strategy is doomed to fail -- you cannot posture a firm ideology for political advantage. You either have one or you don't. And Americans can tell.

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