Bush's (Mixed) Blessing

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, March 5, 2008; 11:56 AM

John McCain almost certainly isn't the Republican that President Bush and Vice President Cheney would have hand-picked to succeed them -- but a McCain victory in November now represents their only hope of preventing all they have wrought from coming undone.

So, with McCain having sewn up the Republican nomination last night, Bush is welcoming his would-be successor to the White House today like royalty. First comes the ceremonial red-carpet reception in the North Portico. Then lunch in Bush's private dining room. Then the formal embrace in the Rose Garden.

Sure, there's been a fair amount of bad blood over the years between McCain and the Bush team, most notably during the bitter Republican primary in 2000. But now that all feels like ancient history.

On a personal level, McCain has put a lot of effort into ingratiating himself to Bush and his base. And he has virtually abandoned any major policy differences, choosing to hew a line nearly identical to Bush's on the most seminal political issues of the day.

When it comes to the war in Iraq, responding to the global threat of what McCain calls "transcendent radical Islamic extremism," making the Bush tax cuts permanent, opposing universal health care or appointing ultra-conservatives to the Supreme Court, McCain -- unlike whoever ends up with the Democratic nomination -- doesn't threaten to roll back the most consequential elements of the Bush presidency. Quite the contrary.

But as I wrote in my Jan. 15 column, polls show that 79 percent of Americans say the next president should set the nation on a new course rather than follow the direction in which Bush has been leading.

So for McCain, today's embrace with Bush is the classic double-edged sword. On the one hand, there is something undeniably compelling about the symbolism of one Republican standard-bearer handing the torch to another, surrounded by the pomp and power of the White House. It will also help McCain with Bush's core supporters. But on the other hand, Bush is damaged goods, deeply unpopular not just with Democrats but also independents, and the walking embodiment of what Americans evidently are eager to put behind them.

Michael D. Shear and Peter Slevin write in The Washington Post that today's endorsement is "intended to cement the senator as the political heir of his former rival."

But Mark Silva blogs for Tribune that "the public embrace of a president whose public approval has hovered at an average of 33 percent for the past year in the Gallup Poll will readily be taken by his Democratic opponent as a symbol that a vote for McCain is a vote for a continuation of the Bush White House."

David Gregory reports for NBC News: "A source close to Bush says McCain has to be careful with a Bush embrace.

"'Better to do it now rather than later,' this source says, 'Get it out of the way.'

"Bush can pass the baton to McCain to help with party unity and declare McCain the future of the party. McCain needs all those things. McCain, the source says, can then say to Bush, I need you to do these things without having to associate too closely with him."

Don Frederick blogs for the Los Angeles Times: "There was no love lost between the two men following the 2000 race. And during Bush's first years in office, McCain was a frequent burr in his side.

"But they reached [a] smoochy accommodation in '04 because it served both their purposes -- Bush wanted to attract the independents who admired McCain; McCain wanted to win points with party regulars.

"McCain can still use Bush's help in shoring up his credentials as a true-blue Republican. And for Bush, McCain stands as the one candidate he truly can count on to push a policy in Iraq that has caused such discontent."

The Rapprochement

Over time, McCain has abandoned his differences with Bush, both personal and political.

Laurent Thomet reports for AFP: "As the two campaigned in race-conscious South Carolina in 2000, the Arizona senator faced false allegations that he had fathered an illegitimate black child. The Bush campaign denied ever being the source of the anonymous claims.

"But McCain went on to endorse Bush's 2004 re-election campaign, famously embracing him at rally in a sign that they had put their quarrels behind.

"McCain later became one of the staunchest supporters of the unpopular president's troop surge strategy in Iraq after criticizing the Bush administration's handling of the war. . . .

"The Republican nominee has also made a turnabout on Bush's tax cuts, which he once criticized as excessive. Moreover, McCain has surrounded himself with advisers of Bush's 2000 and 2004 campaigns."

Peter Baker wrote in The Washington Post earlier this month about how McCain has sometimes kept his distance from Bush. "When McCain describes his inspirations, he chooses Ronald Reagan, repeatedly calling himself a 'foot soldier in the Reagan revolution.'

"But whether he likes it or not, he is now also a foot soldier following Bush, and the two will have to figure out how to fight the next battle together."

The Torture Test

Even when it comes to torture -- the issue that once seemed to distinguish McCain from Bush most clearly -- McCain has come around to back the president.

When he pushed for a Congressional ban on torture in 2005, McCain -- the victim of torture during his years in a North Vietnamese prison -- had a moral authority that, for a while, seemed to have Bush and Cheney at a disadvantage.

Consider my Dec. 16, 2005, column: McCain Defeats Cheney. Bush at that point had just acceded to McCain's ban. In particular, this was seen as a debacle for Cheney, who had publicly taken the lead in trying to scuttle McCain's proposal. The vice president was conspicuously absent when Bush invited McCain to the Oval Office and announced his decision to embrace legislation that was, in almost every way, identical to what he had promised to veto five months earlier.

But all that seems like a long time ago now. Bush famously appended a signing statement to the bill, quietly reserving the right to bypass the law under his powers as commander in chief.

Despite McCain's insistence that waterboarding undeniably constitutes torture, over the next several years evidence emerged that Bush had previously approved waterboarding certain detainees and was considering the possibility of doing so again.

Yet when Congress revisited the issue last month, voting to explicitly ban waterboarding and other assaults on human dignity prohibited by the Army Field Manual, McCain voted against the bill, siding with Bush, who has vowed to veto it.

The Hug

The last time Bush and McCain literally embraced, the body language was, shall we say, a bit obsequious on McCain's part.

I'll be watching closely to see who looks like the alpha dog today.

Middle East Watch

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "With only 10 months left in his term and Israeli-Palestinian talks collapsed over renewed violence, President Bush said Tuesday there is 'plenty of time' to get a Mideast peace deal before he leaves.

"'This is a process that always has two steps forward and one step back,' Bush said after meeting at the White House with Jordan's King Abdullah II. 'We just need to make sure that it's just one step back.'

"Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in the region this week trying to rescue peace negotiations from a low point."

Jawboning Watch

One of the other goals of Bush's Middle East trip in January was to get Saudi Arabia to bump up oil production in order to bump down prices.

White House press secretary Dana Perino said at the time: "The President said there's a hope that as a result of these conversations that OPEC would be encouraged to authorize an increase production."

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton shot back: "President Bush is over in the Gulf now begging the Saudis and others to drop the price of oil. How pathetic."

Well, it didn't work.

Sim Sim Wissgott reports for AFP: "OPEC is Wednesday set to leave oil output unchanged despite fresh calls by US President George W. Bush for an increase in supply to help bring down soaring energy prices. . . .

"Saudi Arabia, the cartel's most influential member, said there was no need to hike production."

Russia Watch

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "Bush telephoned Dmitry Medvedev after his victory in Sunday's presidential vote in Russia, which was widely seen in the West as having been stage-managed by outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin. The White House described a businesslike conversation yesterday that looked forward to constructive U.S.-Russia ties and raised no concerns about the conduct of the election.

"'President Bush told Mr. Medvedev that he looks forward to working with him and that he hopes the two can establish a close working relationship that will help them deal with important world issues,' White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in a statement. 'President Bush said that he had read with interest Mr. Medvedev's recent remarks on personal freedoms, independent media, rule of law and fighting corruption.'"

Executive Order Watch

Pamela Hess writes for the Associated Press: "The White House on Friday gave the national intelligence director some of the powers of an advisory board created in 1976 to serve as the president's watchdog for illegal intelligence activities, a move meant to bolster the role of the intelligence chief in relation to the 16 agencies he oversees. . . .

"A new White House executive order splits the watchdog duties of the Intelligence Oversight Board, a five-member panel of private citizens, with National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell. Rather than intelligence agencies reporting their activities to the board for review, they will now report them to McConnell. The Intelligence Oversight Board will make sure McConnell fulfills these new duties, the White House official said. . . .

"Steven Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, an advocacy group, said the move appears to dilute the independent board's investigatory powers in favor of a member of the president's administration.

"'It makes the new board subordinate to the [national intelligence director] in a way that the old board was not subordinate to the director of central intelligence,' he said.

"The White House disagrees.

"'The [board] retains its independent authority to review intelligence community activities,' said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel. 'It can, as appropriate, report matters to the president.'

"The Intelligence Oversight Board was created in 1976 in the wake of widespread abuses by U.S. intelligence agencies. The five member-board comprised of private citizens was given full investigative powers and the authority to report potentially illegal activities to the attorney general. In a rare public report in 1996, the board chastised the CIA for not informing the State Department that its foreign operatives in Guatemala were involved in kidnapping, murders and other human rights abuses.

"Those investigations will now be largely handled by the national intelligence director, and he will report potential crimes to the attorney general. The board will report to the president if it feels illegal activities are not being adequately addressed."

And here's something that should give you some idea of exactly how independent new board will be: On Monday, Bush announced his intention to appoint Fran Townsend, his intensely loyal former homeland security adviser, to the board.

Matthew Yglesias blogs for the Atlantic: "Bush waited pretty late into his lame duck period to pull this particular stunt, so it seems this is mostly a favor to his successor. He wants John McCain, Clinton, or Obama to be in a position to commit widespread abuses and not just hog all the glory for himself."

Then again, it's not like the previous board, once Bush got around to appointing its members, covered itself in glory. As John Solomon wrote in The Washington Post in July: "An independent oversight board created to identify intelligence abuses after the CIA scandals of the 1970s did not send any reports to the attorney general of legal violations during the first 5 1/2 years of the Bush administration's counterterrorism effort, the Justice Department has told Congress. . . .

"The President's Intelligence Oversight Board -- the principal civilian watchdog of the intelligence community -- is obligated under a 26-year-old executive order to tell the attorney general and the president about any intelligence activities it believes 'may be unlawful.' The board was vacant for the first two years of the Bush administration."

Dictator Watch

Harpers blogger Ken Silverstein annotates Bush's recent comment about dictators -- "Sitting down at the table, having your picture taken with a tyrant. . .lends the status of the office and the status of our country to him," Bush said -- with pictures of Bush laughing it up with Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev and welcoming presidents Heydar Aliyev of Azerbaijan; Paul Biya of Cameroon and Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola to the Oval Office.

No Visits for You

Reuters reports: "Voters in two Vermont towns on Tuesday approved a measure that would instruct police to arrest President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for 'crimes against our Constitution', local media reported.

"The nonbinding, symbolic measure, passed in Brattleboro and Marlboro in a state known for taking liberal positions on national issues, instructs town police to 'extradite them to other authorities that may reasonably contend to prosecute them'."

Cartoon Watch

Dwane Powell on what $3 trillion buys you these days; Tony Auth on how Bush is paying for it all; Dan Wasserman on the enemy that followed us home; Tom Toles on Iraq-a-mole; Clay Bennett on making McCain look good.

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