As Democrats begin their convention in Denver, you will be surprised to learn that John McCain has already chosen a running mate: George W. Bush. It has become the new talking point that voting for McCain amounts to “four more years of Bush”. When Joe Biden gave his first speech last Saturday in Springfield, Illinois, as the new vice Presidential choice of Barack Obama, he said of McCain: "You can't change America when you know your first four years as president will look like the last eight years of George Bush's presidency." Since Obama's disastrous trip to Europe and his poor performance in the Saddleback Church debate he's been in a slide, with polling for the first time actually showing McCain ahead. As it becomes increasingly apparent to the American public that the emperor is wearing no clothes, the strategy has started to shift. The first element on this change is the Biden selection, which was made to placate critics who have pilloried Obama for his foreign policy gaffes and lack of substance. Obama needs an attack dog so he can stay above the fray, looking like the post-partisan candidate he is pretending to be. Biden will do that role well, though the public will quickly tire of his verbosity. And already, according to Gallup, the selection is not expected to help Obama in the polls.
The second element of the new strategy is to run against George W. Bush. This is understandable, since McCain's approval rankings are far higher that the president's -- who is still mired somewhere in the 30% range. Obama has now wagered that he can tar and feather McCain with Bush's problems -- energy prices, housing and, since Iraq is going well, Afghanistan. The success of the surge has reduced the importance of the Iraq War for the average voter, who now believes that we will win. The theme that Obama is now sure to take is that because of Iraq, we took our eye off Afghanistan -- and we're losing there. It will be a hard sell.
In any event, we'll be hearing a lot about the McCain-Bush ticket and the "four more years of failed policies." It's a neat try, but it won't work for the following reasons:
1). Though Bush's approval ratings are low, it is a mistake for Obama to assume that polling data show the real story. Approval polls are notoriously difficult to administer, and are frequently wrong. When Harry Truman had a 37% approval rating in April 1948 the pollsters were certain he was toast, and that Dewey would be shoo-in in the November election. What the approval rating didn't show was that in radically uncertain times -- in that instance, a post-war economic slump, an ascendant Soviet Union and a fragile Europe -- the electorate often rejects uncertainty and change. This is particularly true with choosing a president, who is above all else, the nation's commander in chief. And, while Bush has a low overall job approval rating, his "favorability" marks are much higher. In a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken August 15-18, 2008, 45% gave the president either a "Very Positive", "Somewhat Positive" or "Neutral" rating. (Source:PollingReport.com.) It is thus no gimme that running against George W. Bush in the 2008 election is going to succeed.
2). The Bush record is actually quite positive in many areas, despite the constant criticism from the left. The facts speak for themselves: Since 9/11, the Bush presidency has been defined by the threat of Islamic terrorism. His domestic and foreign policy has been geared toward protecting the homeland from further attack, while destroying terrorist networks and their state sponsors. Since 9/11 we have not had another attack on U.S. soil. We have destroyed the Taliban, deposed the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, and dramatically eroded Al Qaeda's infrastructure and leadership capabilities. The war in Iraq -- though poorly prosecuted in the beginning -- has turned around, and if progress continues at its current pace, will prove to be a resounding success, creating a democracy in the heart of the Middle East. The economy grew steadily over the first six years of the Bush presidency, and many of the primary problems today -- housing and energy -- cannot be blamed solely (or primarily) on the President.
I would argue against the conventional wisdom that being associated with George W. Bush is an anchor around the neck of John McCain -- and he should use the McCain-Bush comparisons to his advantage. He could do so by communicating effectively the tremendous success that the Bush Administration has had in the war on terror, and place the blame for the mortgage mess and the failure to expand domestic oil production on Nancy Pelosi and Congress where it belongs. He should do what Bush himself cannot -- be an assertive advocate of the record.
If McCain were smart, he'd run toward George Bush and not away from him.