President Bush’s appearance before the Republican National Convention was huge – literally. His visage beamed from screens as big as Winnebagos when he addressed delegates at the Xcel Energy Center via video from the White House on Sept. 2.
But it’s likely that Mr. Bush’s role in the GOP effort to elect John McCain as his successor will only shrink as late summer turns into fall.
In part that’s because of the two men’s personal history. Senator McCain long resented the tactics Bush used against him in the 2000 primaries. McCain’s advisers are eager to distance their candidate from some of an unpopular incumbent’s policies.
It’s also a reflection of the nature of US politics. For generations, presidential candidates from both parties have struggled to establish their own identities in the shadow of term-limited predecessors.
Remember 2000? Al Gore wanted to establish himself as more than Bill Clinton’s vice president, and so he didn’t use Mr. Clinton on the campaign trail as much as he could have, says Stephen Hess, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington.
“It was a great mistake,” says Mr. Hess.
In some ways, the proceedings at the GOP confab here have presented a fascinating look at a triangle of political rivalry and reconciliation.
That’s right – triangle. On Sept. 2, the President Bush who was present physically in the hall – and whose story received more attention than his son’s, if measured by allotted time – was George Herbert Walker Bush, the current US chief executive’s father.
Bush the elder and Bush the younger have not always seen eye to eye. If nothing else, the elder Bush reportedly has expressed some reservations about some of his son’s policies, particularly in regard to Iraq.
But Bush 41 has also choked up when talking about what he perceives as unfair criticism of Bush 43, and the moment on Tuesday night must have been one full of familial pride, even to a pair of self-professed unreflective males.
After all, someone named “Bush” has been president or vice president of the United States for 20 of the past 28 years.
Then there’s the sometimes strained relationship between the current president and his possible successor as the GOP’s titular head.
Whatever personal tensions exist between President Bush and John McCain, the political peril for McCain is obvious. Democrats will do their best to tie the Arizona senator to a president with historically low approval ratings.
As a Sept. 3 message memo from the Barack Obama campaign noted gleefully, in many polls majorities of respondents have expressed concern that McCain would pursue policies too close to those of Bush.
Tighter-fisted than Bush?
McCain backers have similar concerns, and they even express them publicly. Discussing possible McCain policies at a Monitor lunch in St. Paul on Sept. 1, campaign economics adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin said that when it comes to balancing the budget, the Arizona senator wants to skip the Bush years and return to the era of Clinton.
In the mid- to late-1990s, there was more scrutiny of Washington’s appropriations, due to cooperation between Clinton and a GOP-controlled Congress, said Mr. Holtz-Eakin.
“Spending was controlled in a way that has not been the case since Bush took office,” said the McCain adviser.
In this context, hurricane Gustav produced one positive effect, at least, for the GOP convention. It allowed the McCain forces to limit Bush’s appearance to a brief off-site video as they attempt to turn the page and take attention off the current administration.
Bush, in turn, talked little about his own legacy. Instead he focused on McCain, too, at one point even saying that if the North Vietnamese did not break McCain when he was a prisoner of war, “you can be sure the angry left never will.”
The speech may have fit well into McCain’s effort in essence to continue Bush’s Iraq policies – but without claiming Bush’s mantle.
Bush’s legacy is at stake in the coming vote, says Ms. Bose. If McCain wins, GOP control of the White House will extend to 12 years.
In the modern era, “it’s very unusual for a party to keep power that long, due to the cyclical nature of politics,” she says.
Candidates and other incumbents
McCain is not the only recent candidate who has had to strike a difficult balance in regard to an incumbent predecessor. In 1968, Democratic nominee and sitting Vice President Hubert Humphrey found that President Lyndon Johnson was a millstone around his neck, due to Johnson’s association with the Vietnam War.
Yet the call for extensive help never came.
“Nixon wanted to show that he could do it on his own,” says Hess, a former Eisenhower administration staffer.