Even without Bush in St. Paul, GOP can't escape his record

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 31, 2008 

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — In many ways, the Republican National Convention here this week is President Bush's convention, and that's not good political news for John McCain.

Even though Bush canceled his live Monday night appearance so he could monitor the impact of Hurricane Gustav, he's still the leader of the GOP — and the key reason why its political fortunes are under a cloud.

Not since Lyndon Johnson stayed away from his party's 1968 Democratic convention, after being advised by party officials not to come, has an incumbent president been such a liability to his own party.

Adding to the what-to-do-about Bush drama are two other factors: the hurricane and Bush's rocky history with presumptive nominee John McCain.

Gustav provides a vivid reminder of Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 storm that devastated New Orleans and parts of the Gulf Coast. Bush's popularity plunged then and never recovered.

Gustav is "a reminder of how poorly Bush has done," said Douglas Koopman, professor of political science at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. "It was Bush's worst mistake," he recalled. "It showed people the basic level of managerial incompetence in the administration."

McCain is also a reminder of Bush's shaky political stature. The Arizona senator built his maverick reputation in part on challenging Bush, first for the 2000 GOP nomination and later by voting twice against the president’s big tax cuts and winning approval in 2005 of a ban on torturing prisoners in U.S. custody.

Bush's convention strategy involves staying out of the partisan fray. If he sends any message to the convention, it will be upbeat and gracious, said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.

When Bush was preparing to speak to the convention, Perino said, "Do not expect this speech to define the president's legacy. This is not an opportunity to recap accomplishments of the past seven and one-half years. It will not serve as a farewell to the American people and it will certainly not attack Barack Obama."

Asked why not, Perino said, "Because he’s (Bush’s) got class."

He also can read the polls. His job approval has been around 30 percent in most polls for the last 19 months.

Yet analysts thought that both Bush and the Republicans could escape huge political harm here if he and the convention do a few things right.

First, said Bruce Buchanan, a Texas University professor of government who has closely followed Bush's career, the president and his allies "have to look forward and talk about passing the torch. They can't talk about Iraq or the economy; in fact, I can't think of any policy they could dwell on."

Second, Bush must try to energize Republicans.

"He’s still very popular with Republicans. If he delivers the right message, and doesn't pick too many fights over policies, he can help the party," said Patrick Basham, adjunct scholar at Washington’s Cato Institute, a libertarian research group.

Third, Bush and his party can make a strong, compassionate response to hurricane victims.

Convention officials could set up phone banks to solicit donations to help victims, or Bush could provide updates from Federal Emergency Management Agency officials.

"They should concentrate on trying to show Republicans want to help," said Terry Madonna, professor of political science at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. "If they miss a day of convention speeches it's not the end of the world."

Fourth, Bush must make it clear that he wants McCain to succeed him, but also show how the two are different.

Basham thought that Bush should provide the kind of boost that Ronald Reagan gave the GOP convention in 1988, when he smiled and explained how tough and candid Vice President George H. W. Bush could be.

"George played a major role in everything we accomplished in these eight years," Reagan said. He described "the George Bush I've seen up close, when the staff and cabinet members have closed the door and when the two of us are alone, someone who's not afraid to speak his mind and who can cut to the core of an issue."

That set the perfect tone, Basham recalled, since Bush was widely criticized as a second-in-command who did little but follow Reagan's orders.

Whether any of this will sanitize Bush's impact on his party among voters, particularly independents, remains doubtful.

Analysts noted that there are many things going against them: An unpopular war, a sluggish economy, and now a hurricane.

Koopman summed up the GOP dilemma: "It's just a bad time for the Republican Party."

ON THE WEB President Reagan’s 1988 convention speech

Bush's job approval ratings

For more McClatchy politics coverage: Check out McClatchy's expanded Politics coverage

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