The Bush-McCain Alliance
The newfound friendship may be good for late-night laughs, but it is deadly serious political business for both men, the result of a deliberate, months-long effort by the White House to woo the Arizona senator – the most popular national political figure in the country – and of Mr. McCain’s self-interested susceptibility to same. The turnabout could not be more striking, and for both men the stakes could be nothing less than the presidency itself.
Four years ago, relations were so strained that Mr. McCain left the Republican convention in Philadelphia two days early, returning for the final night only after a last-minute request by the Bush team. This year, he will have a prime-time speaking slot on the convention’s first night in New York City, play host to the network anchors at a private dinner the day before, campaign with the president in several states the day after, speak to 10 or 15 state delegations and preside over a celebrity party with the comedian Darrell Hammond on the eve of Mr. Bush’s re-nomination.
So what’s up? Pure political physics, friends of both men say.
Mr. Bush is locked in a tight race with Mr. McCain’s old Senate friend John Kerry and needs all the belated help he can get with the moderate, Democratic and independent voters who like Mr. McCain. And Mr. McCain, who has spent months earning the ire of his party by saying nice things about Mr. Kerry and nasty ones about some Bush policies, is eager to show, like Dr. Seuss’s punctilious pachyderm, that he may have meant what he said and said what he meant, but “an elephant’s faithful 100 percent.”
Whether Mr. Bush wins or loses, the Republican race for the White House will be wide open in 2008, and while Mr. McCain has often suggested he would not run again, politicians never really mean never. As he learned in 2000, Mr. McCain could not win the nomination without broader backing from the party establishment than his independence sometimes allows.
“John is so sharp,” said former Senator Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming. “I think he knows that whatever his future is, it can never go anywhere unless he’s seen as supportive of the party and supportive of the president, and anything else will abort whatever he may have in mind.”
Odd as it may be, it’s not particularly surprising. As strong as their differences are, McCain is much closer to Bush than to Kerry on the big issues. While he may be the Republican most admired by Democrats, he’s not a Democrat and could never get elected to the presidency as a Democrat. His best bet is a Bush re-election and a reasonable claim to frontrunner status for 2008.