Al­liance and Ri­valry Link Bush, McCain

Al­ter­nat­ing Pos­tures May De­ter­mine Sen­a­tor’s Po­lit­i­cal Fate, Some Friends Say

The Washington Post Sunday - - Politics - By Peter Baker

When nine Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates pre­sented their cases to Iowa ac­tivists at a Des Moines din­ner this month, only Ari­zona Sen. John McCain went out of his way to em­brace Pres­i­dent Bush. “There’s only one com­man­der in chief of the United States, and that’s Ge­orge W. Bush,” he told the crowd. “I sup­port him, and I be­lieve in him.”

But when McCain for­mally kicked off his cam­paign last week, there seemed to be a lot he did not be­lieve in, such as Bush’s han­dling of the Iraq war, Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina and fed­eral spend­ing. McCain called for Bush’s at­tor­ney gen­eral to re­sign. “That’s not good enough for Amer­ica,” he said af­ter recit­ing a litany of Bush fail­ures. “And when I’m pres­i­dent, it won’t be good enough for me.”

The swing be­tween rev­er­ence and re­pu­di­a­tion over a 10-day pe­riod mir­rors the arc of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Bush and McCain, two dom­i­nant fig­ures in their party who have danced along the fine line sep­a­rat­ing al­liance and ri­valry for eight years. At times, Bush has had no stronger sup­porter than McCain; at oth­ers, no harsher critic. For McCain, the chal­lenge of the next year will be fig­ur­ing out how to rec­on­cile those in­stincts. And for Bush, the chal­lenge will be liv­ing with them.

The sen­a­tor’s tone on his an­nounce­ment tour sug­gested that his strat­egy of mov­ing closer to Bush in re­cent years has reached its lim­its. But whether he likes it or not, McCain is also the can­di­date most as­so­ci­ated in the pub­lic mind with the pres­i­dent’s war in Iraq, mak­ing him an un­likely would-be suc­ces­sor to the man who beat him for the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion in 2000.

“His­tory has linked th­ese two guys up at a time in our na­tional and world his­tory when their strengths com­ple­ment each other,” said Sen. Lind­sey O. Gra­ham (R-S.C.), a close McCain ally. “The dif­fer­ences they’ve had his­tor­i­cally will be over­shad­owed by their col­lab­o­ra­tion. There’ve been some op­er­a­tional dif­fer­ences but not strate­gic dif­fer­ences.”

That puts McCain in the awk­ward po­si­tion of need­ing Bush to boost his own chances. “It’s ironic that McCain spent eight years suck­ing up to the White House and now it’s a neg­a­tive,” said Ron Kauf­man, a for­mer aide to Ge­orge H.W. Bush who is sup­port­ing for­mer Mas­sachusetts gov­er­nor Mitt Rom­ney for the GOP pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion.

The of­fi­cial line in both camps is that Bush and McCain long ago put any per­sonal an­i­mosi­ties be­hind them and to­day re­spect each other even if they dis­agree on key is­sues. Kauf­man com­pared the re­la­tion­ship to the one be­tween the elder Bush and then-Sen. Robert J. Dole (RKan.), who patched up their dif­fer­ences af­ter a tough 1988 nom­i­na­tion fight. The pres­i­dent has told as­so­ciates that he rec­og­nizes that McCain and other Repub­li­cans will need to run against him to some ex­tent. “The pres­i­dent un­der­stands pol­i­tics,” a se­nior aide said.

But it does not re­quire much scratch­ing to find the scar tis­sue from their bit­ter 2000 bat­tle and the many sub­se­quent clashes over pol­icy in the years since. “When you talk to peo­ple, they cringe,” said a White House of­fi­cial, who spoke about the prospect of McCain suc­ceed­ing Bush on the con­di­tion of anonymity. A for­mer Bush aide, af­ter giv­ing the rit­ual as­ser­tion that both sides have moved on, re­called a string of McCain provo­ca­tions, then caught him­self. “Doesn’t it sound like the wounds are pretty fresh for some­one who said it’s ‘Let by­gones be by­gones’ ?” he sighed.

On the other side, a for­mer McCain aide said “much of the hate is over,” but added: “The White House staff is ar­ro­gant. They tend to have the ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’ ” at­ti­tude. As for McCain, he re­turned to South Carolina last week and obliquely re­called his sear­ing pri­mary show­down with Bush, pre­dict­ing to re­porters that the state’s vot­ers “will re­ject that kind of cam­paign­ing” this time around.

The evo­lu­tion of the Bush-McCain re­la­tion­ship re­ally goes back to South Carolina. The two ar­rived there in Fe­bru­ary 2000 af­ter the sen­a­tor trounced the Texas gov­er­nor in the New Hamp­shire pri­mary. A brief, bru­tal cam­paign ul­ti­mately de­stroyed McCain’s can­di­dacy and pro­pelled Bush to the nom­i­na­tion. The re­sult­ing bit­ter­ness per­sisted as the new pres­i­dent took of­fice, and as McCain fought Bush’s tax cuts and forced him to sign a cam­paign fi­nance law that he op­posed. The pres­i­dent was reg­u­larly ex­as­per­ated. “He would say, ‘There he goes again,’ ” the for­mer Bush aide said.

The re­la­tion­ship be­gan to change when Bush aide Karen Hughes reached out to McCain and ar­ranged a din­ner be­tween the two men. The at­tacks of Sept. 11, 2001, helped bring them to­gether, too. But it was not un­til 2004 that the two camps reached a rap­proche­ment. Much of the en­mity had been fu­eled by a long-stand­ing feud be­tween their chief strate­gists, Karl Rove and John Weaver, two old Texas hands who had a fall­ing-out in 1988 over a dis­puted bill for a cam­paign mail­ing and be­came fierce ri­vals. “They both do pol­i­tics to win, so the com­pe­ti­tion is in­tense, to say the least,” said Reg­gie Bashur, an­other Texas con­sul­tant.

In early 2004, Weaver called Bush ad­viser Mark McKin­non and told him that it was time to settle things with Rove. McKin­non ar­ranged a meet­ing with the two men at a Cari­bou Cof­fee shop near the White House where they agreed to put their dif­fer­ences be­hind them. “Lis­ten, we had a very tough, in­trafam­ily fight,” Weaver re­called in a re­cent in­ter­view. “Th­ese are al­ways tougher, the fights be­tween fam­i­lies. McCain was over it be­fore ev­ery­body else was. Like a lot of th­ese things, some of the lower-level sol­diers didn’t come out of the hills for a long time.”

Within weeks of that hatchet-bury­ing ses­sion, McCain be­gan cam­paign­ing with Bush. The two went to­gether to Fort Lewis, a huge mil­i­tary base in Wash­ing­ton state, and met pri­vately with the fam­i­lies of slain sol­diers. “It was a pretty emo­tional meet­ing, as they are apt to be,” Weaver said. “I re­mem­ber John putting his arm around the pres­i­dent. . . . I think there was some un­spo­ken bond that de­vel­oped in that mo­ment.”

By fall, McCain was a reg­u­lar pres­ence on Air Force One and even stayed at the pres­i­dent’s Texas ranch. McCain bucked up Bush be­fore his Ari­zona face-off with Sen. John F. Kerry (D- Mass.). “He was like a de­bate coach,” McKin­non said. “He was back in the green room go­ing, ‘You’re go­ing to be great, you’re go­ing to be great.’ ”

That did not mean McCain would stop be­ing a thorn in Bush’s side. The sen­a­tor forged a bi­par­ti­san com­pro­mise on Bush’s ju­di­cial se­lec­tions that irked the White House, and led a re­bel­lion against the pres­i­dent on de­ten­tion and in­ter­ro­ga­tion poli­cies for ter­ror­ism sus­pects. He also reg­u­larly de­nounced the mis­takes made in Iraq and then-De­fense Sec­re­tary Don­ald H. Rums­feld’s per­for­mance. But as he geared up for his sec­ond pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, McCain re­cruited Bush op­er­a­tives and be­came the strong­est ad­vo­cate of send­ing more troops to Iraq.

Among the Bush ad­vis­ers who have joined McCain’s cam­paign are McKin­non, Terry Nelson, Tom Lo­ef­fler and Steve Sch­midt. McKin­non said he was “given a green light” by the White House, al­though Bush re­mains neu­tral in the nom­i­na­tion con­test. Mak­ing the switch, McKin­non said, was a bit of a cul­ture shock. “Work­ing for Pres­i­dent Bush and the Bush world is like work­ing for the Royal Bri­tish Navy,” he said. “Work­ing for John McCain is like work­ing for the pi­rates of the Caribbean.”

As McCain tries to re­cap­ture the buc­ca­neer spirit of 2000, he finds him­self tied to Bush’s sink­ing navy., the lib­eral ad­vo­cacy group, pro­duced two ads link­ing them, one show­ing a se­ries of Bush-McCain hugs and pro­claim­ing that “John McCain has done more than just em­brace Ge­orge Bush’s failed pol­icy in Iraq. It’s ac­tu­ally his idea to es­ca­late the war there.”

Polling sug­gests that the link works against McCain even among Repub­li­cans. Only 38 per­cent of Repub­li­cans and Repub­li­can-lean­ing in­de­pen­dents sur­veyed by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter for the Peo­ple and the Press said they want their can­di­date to con­tinue Bush’s poli­cies in Iraq, while 54 per­cent said they want a dif­fer­ent approach.

McCain al­lies said his al­ter­nat­ing praise and crit­i­cism of Bush stem from prin­ci­ple, not po­lit­i­cal cal­cu­la­tion. But they ac­knowl­edge that they may de­ter­mine his po­lit­i­cal fate. “John is cer­tainly try­ing to do what he thinks is right, both when he sup­ports the pres­i­dent and when he doesn’t,” said Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.). “This is not a straight line. This is a mine­field, and you’ve got to deal with the mines where they are.” Staff writer Michael D. Shear con­trib­uted to this re­port from South Carolina.


At times, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been a strong backer of the pres­i­dent; at oth­ers, a harsh critic. As McCain pur­sues the pres­i­dency, rec­on­cil­ing those in­stincts will be one of his chal­lenges.

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