John Dickerson chatted online with readers about this article. Read the transcript.
The last time a two-term president spoke at his party’s nominating convention, he sparked a grand celebration. It was 2000. Bill Clinton was introduced, and the Democrats gathered in Los Angeles went nuts. Instead of taking the stage, though, Clinton first showed up on enormous screens. For the next 30 seconds, the crowd watched as he walked the narrow cinderblock hallway to the podium. By the time he arrived, the popcorn had spilled, the funny hats were askew, and the entire arena was in a deep frenzy.
This happy convergence is not likely to repeat itself when George Bush speaks at the Republican convention in St. Paul, Minn., in September. With approval ratings in the high 20s, Bush has a standing more than 20 points lower than Clinton’s at the time of his saunter. In 2000, 51 percent of the country said America was on the right track. Now 13 percent does. The Obama campaign tries to take advantage of the ill will by claiming that John McCain represents merely a third Bush term and by linking the two in an ad. It’s working. In recent polls, the majority of respondents believe that McCain, as president, would continue Mr. Bush’s policies in Iraq and on the economy. How much of a liability is Bush? One McCain aide refers to him as kryptonite. The irony, says a McCain supporter, is that Bush could end up beating McCain on both his runs for the presidency.
Conventions are usually a place to finesse a candidate’s liabilities. And yet McCain has to give kryptonite a prime-time speaking spot. When I asked GOP veterans whether there was any way to minimize the damage for McCain, their first reaction was to laugh. Since the convention starts on a Monday, one member of the McCain campaign joked that Bush could speak on Sunday night. Another veteran Republican suggested putting up an onstage dunking booth for the president. McCain could break tradition by arriving at the convention early in the week so he can take a few throws at the target.
The main trick at a convention, which every campaign faces, is to present a candidate to a general-election audience—which usually means appealing to the political center—at a gathering of his most partisan supporters, who flock to the convention center to cheer loudly for his most conservative appeals. It would be easier for candidates if their conventions were held the day after they grabbed the nomination. Then they could wave to the base and go on to make their move to the middle uninterrupted.
McCain faces an acute version of the usual dilemma. Polls in recent days suggest that disaffected Republicans are coming home to his campaign (or, given his rocky relationship with the party, saying hi for the first time). McCain doesn’t want to alienate those party faithful who may not be thrilled with the president but who also don’t want to see him insulted. But he also has to show that he’s a different kind of Republican in a year when the party brand is so damaged that 10 of the 12 Republicans running in the most competitive Senate races this fall are either skipping the convention or have not decided whether to attend.
So other than crack grim jokes, what should McCain do to limit the damage Bush could do to him? Here are a few suggestions from several people in the business who have planned conventions before:
1. Make it a family affair. Matthew Dowd, Bush’s former strategist who is now with ABC, suggests bringing in George H.W. along with his son and maybe other family members as well. While the current Bush is unpopular, voters have warm feelings about his father. (Even Barack Obama praises his foreign-policy acumen.) The downside is that the 41st president was the last one who was considered sorely out of touch with a bad economy.
2. Make Bush a character witness for McCain. By talking about the arc of his presidency—the attacks of 9/11 and the response of the American people and American military—Bush can stay on relatively noncontroversial ground, which he can link to McCain’s biography. His speech could touch on the underlying theme of McCain’s message—serving your country in crisis and doing the right thing even when it’s politically unpopular. The problem with this approach is that it reinforces the idea that McCain is all about war and military.
3. Talk about conflict. Each night of a convention has a theme. Monday is traditionally former president’s night. McCain could change things and make it “gadfly night,” in which his GOP opponents testify to his irritating oppositional streak. The night’s kickoff speakers could be members of the GOP with whom McCain has clashed over the years: Tom Tancredo on immigration, Dick Cheney on torture, James Inhofe on climate change, Mitch McConnell on campaign finance. Bush would then take over for the keynote, pointing out the various areas in which he and McCain have disagreed. This would highlight McCain’s independence. Then they could kiss and make up over their big area of agreement—the latest military strategy in Iraq, which is increasingly viewed as successful. This will never happen.
As the McCain campaign weighs the options, it has no historical precedent to follow. Richard Nixon didn’t speak at Ford’s 1976 convention. The benefits of resignation. Maybe, one aide suggested, this time around Bush could just embrace his own unpopularity and say: “If John McCain had had his way, I wouldn’t be here.”