How Not to Be Bush

Washington Matters

How Not to Be Bush

John McCain has created an interesting dilemma for himself. George Bush is such a wildly unpopular president that McCain will have to put considerable distance between himself and this very lame duck. But he's made that extremely difficult by fervently embracing so many of Bush's signature -- and most controversial -- policies. Still there's a way to do it.

There's more than a little irony in McCain's circumstance. He's spent much of the past seven years being the most consistent Republican pain in the administration's rump. But by being Bush's most vocal and consistent supporter on the Iraq war in the Senate, siding with Bush on immigration reform last year and reversing his long-standing opposition to Bush's tax cuts, McCain made himself look more like Bush on issues that are dominating the race than almost any of the other GOP candidates he beat.

So how does McCain avoid natural comparisons to a president whose popularity is the same as Jimmy Carter's at his lowest point and approaching that of Nixon shortly before he was forced from office?

Don't attack Bush's policies or ideology, attack the competence of his administration -- there's certainly enough material to work with.

McCain test drove that approach with a trip to New Orleans arranged specifically to denounce the government's  response to Hurricane Katrina. It would be easy for McCain to move from one example of failure and sloppiness to another to create a strong theme along the lines of "We'll make government work again":

-- The troubles plaguing the FAA, from accusations of managers covering up dangerous sloppiness by air traffic  controllers to missing so many routine inspections that planes by the hundreds -- and passengers by the thousands -- were grounded.
-- An ineffective FDA that has missed multiple instances of tainted foods and medicines.
-- A Pentagon weapons development and buying program that is widely regarded by Democrats and Republicans alike as grossly mismanaged, obscenely beyond budget and occasionally tainted with corruption scandals.

If McCain wants to venture beyond competency and into questionable judgment, he could point to numerous instances where officials from a given industry were nominated to run agencies and commissions that regulate those industries -- as well as cases where officials had to resign because of conflict of interest or other questionable conduct. Along the same lines, McCain, who has a far wider environmentalist streak than Bush and many other Republicans, could promise tougher enforcement of environmental laws. The administration has written some regulations so out of character with laws they are meant to enforce, such as the Clean Air Act,  that the Supreme Court has struck them down.

Many of these are issues that Democrats are seizing upon. McCain adding his own jeers over White House bumbling could allow him to accomplish two things at once: Run against an unpopular president while blurring the  distinctions between him and the Democratic nominee on issues like these so he can underscore the policy differences that play to McCain's strengths, such as national security.