Bush Trips Up McCain

Posted August 1, 2008 at 5:26pm

As he attempts to pursue a final burst of policymaking, President Bush is stepping hard on the toes of presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), adopting issues and positions that are unhelpful or even harmful to the candidate. The politically questionable moves come at a time when Bush’s dismal popularity ratings already are helping Democrats wound McCain with the charge that he will preside over Bush’s third term.

To be sure, Bush has acted in some ways that could help McCain, allying himself with the Senator’s anti-pork stance by vetoing Medicare and farm bills Bush believes were larded with wasteful spending. The president also regularly hammers Democrats for opposing expanded oil drilling, helping Republicans seize an issue they believe is a sure winner with gas near $4 a gallon.

But Bush also grabbed hold of several policies last month that directly undermine McCain.

Even as the Arizonan blasted presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama (Ill.) for misguided enthusiasm for negotiations with Iran, Bush dispatched a high-ranking diplomat to talks between the Iranians and the Europeans.

The president also signed on to the idea of a “time horizon” for withdrawing troops from Iraq, right after Iraqi President Nuri al-Maliki appeared to endorse Obama’s call for removing the troops in 16 months. Bush’s distinction that the time frame had to be based on events on the ground was buried beneath the news that he might consider a schedule for withdrawing.

McCain, who backed the original troop surge even before Bush did and who had resisted all efforts to establish a withdrawal timeline, was then forced to backpedal into saying that Obama had proposed “a pretty good timetable,” though he added the asterisk that it had to be linked to conditions in Iraq.

Egged on by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Bush accepted a potentially high-priced Fannie Mae-Freddie Mac rescue bill that included some $4 billion that will assist Democratic-leaning housing advocates who want to register millions of anti-McCain voters. Though he supports other ideas, McCain was left with little choice but to back the expensive measure.

Most recently, Bush popped in on a White House meeting of lobbyists who support the Korea free-trade bill, which is widely opposed in Michigan because of the perceived harm it would cause the auto industry. The measure stands little chance of coming to the floor before the election, and McCain says he supports it.

But analysts say if forced to vote on the deal it could cost him a state that has risen nearly to the importance of pivotal battlegrounds such as Ohio and Florida in the presidential sweepstakes. McCain has stayed within a few points of Obama in recent Michigan polls, which has not gone for a GOP presidential candidate in 20 years. Its 17 electoral votes are just three shy of Ohio’s 20.

“Any vote on [Korea] or any free-trade agreement doesn’t play well here in Michigan,” said David Dulio, a political scientist at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich. “That would be a very tough spot for him.”

Trade generally is suspect in manufacturing-heavy Michigan, and the Colombia free-trade agreement that Bush is desperately pushing may be no more helpful to McCain.

Dulio noted that concerns with trade and globalization were typical of the blue-collar workers Obama had trouble collecting in the Democratic primary and who offer fertile ground for the war hero McCain in Michigan. Michigan also has a tradition of backing mavericks of McCain’s ilk.

Sage Eastman, a spokesman for Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and a veteran of Michigan politics, agreed that a vote would be problematic for McCain.

“Given the state of Michigan’s economy, any slight to the Big Three could have a big ripple effect” economically and politically, he said. “Korea’s a tough vote for anyone campaigning in Michigan.”

One veteran Republican strategist even questioned the benefit of Bush peddling drilling proposals at the same time as McCain, given Bush’s low popularity.

“You have to start with the premise that no matter what this White House does, it’s a big negative for McCain,” said this source. “Bush shouldn’t be hugging McCain and McCain shouldn’t be hugging Bush,” he added. “Bush has got to give him room to be his own person.”

A McCain aide, while not addressing directly whether Bush’s moves harmed the candidate, noted that McCain backs the Korea deal and will not shrink away from it. He added that McCain has opposed Bush on issues, particularly what McCain views as the president’s overspending.