ST. PAUL — The Republicans may not have held much of a convention so far, but they still know how to put on a show. As thousands protested in the streets, the Palins announced the latest addition to their family, and the GOP turned its national convention into a Jerry Lewis-style telethon for the victims of Hurricane Gustav, John McCain’s party began its transition into the post-Bush era.
Although Laura Bush and Cindy McCain addressed the opening session, speeches by President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were the storm’s first casualties. But the new titular head of the Republican Party probably doesn’t mind: while McCain is locked in a tight race against Barack Obama, the president’s approval ratings have been stuck in the 30s — ever since the last time a hurricane hit New Orleans.
The biggest — only? — argument the Democrats made in Denver was that McCain represented another four years of Bush. If voters want to turn the page on the Bush economy, Bush’s war, and the red-blue political divisions that have dominated the Bush years, Obama is the only alternative. While the Bush-McCain linkage might not be as self-evident to swing voters as the Democratic base, it is too close for the new Republican nominee’s comfort.
In some ways, it is unfair that this is how the GOP faithful will bid Bush farewell. More than any recent Republican president, including Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, he and his aides were actively involved in party-building. The Bush White House helped recruit top-shelf candidates for Senate seats in South Dakota, Georgia, Minnesota, Missouri, Florida, and North Carolina when some of those Republicans would have preferred to run for other offices. These efforts paved for way for the Republican pickups in the 2002 and 2004 elections.
Bush was generous with his time and his coattails in the red states, making frequent campaign swings and fundraising stops. Meanwhile, Karl Rove saw himself not just as the president’s chief political adviser but as the Mark Hanna of his generation — the architect of an enduring Republican majority. After Bush was reelected, Democrats went into mourning and began to question whether they could win national elections again without undergoing major changes.
How quickly things change. Two years later, the Republicans were in the doldrums and that perpetually emerging Democratic majority seemed in sight for the first time since 1968. Having reached parity with the Democrats, Republican identification among the voters tumbled to pre-Reagan levels — exactly where the Democratic presidential ticket now pledges to raise taxes and regulations. Bush went from majority-maker to majority-breaker in one short election cycle.
McCain’s nomination happened more by accident than by design, as a number of “if’s” show: If Rudy Giuliani had been willing to glad-handle in New Hampshire, if Fred Thompson had run less of a celebrity campaign, if Mike Huckabee had never risen and Mitt Romney had won the Iowa caucuses, it is hard to imagine the Arizona senator ever recovering from his 2007 near-meltdown. But he was still the right candidate for the post-Bush moment. Popular with independents, inclined to pick high-profile fights with the White House, and willing to buck his party, McCain could transcend the battered Republican brand.
That also accounts for his continuing problems with the conservative base. They remember McCain and Bush siding against them on many issues — the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, No Child Left Behind, and they stopped just short of coming together on McCain-Lieberman cap-and-trade approach to climate change. But McCain was first on the surge, on earmark reform, on offsetting Katrina relief, and, however flawed his motives, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, even if Bush was the conservative standard-bearer on tax cuts and Guantanamo Bay.
If the Republican convention can resume as normal no later than Wednesday, McCain will get his chance to re-brand the party in his image. For good and for ill, the Republicans can watch the Bush years blow away.