Presumptive GOP nominee Sen. John McCain is getting lots of advice about separating himself from President George W. Bush. Bush's approval rating, which in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll stands at 28 percent. (CNN says 32 percent, but CBS has 25 percent.) A Google search for "Bush approval rating lowest" gets more than 400,000 hits.
According to pollster Peter Hart, Bush is a "200-pound ball and chain around McCain's foot. Unless he figures out a way to cut it loose, he's going to be dragging it throughout this election."
So we'll probably see a lot of discussion of how different McCain is from Bush, largely based on personality quirks and styles. This tactic strikes me as odd, because the problem isn't that Americans don't like President Bush personally; it's that they don't like President Bush's policies.
The media will concoct all sorts of reasons why McCain's personality differs from Bush's. Of course, this is the same Bush (and the same media) who told us how much Americans liked Bush personally in 2000 and 2004, despite qualms about his policies.
Here's USA Today's Richard Benedetto, in 2004: "President Bush, despite his many problems, strikes most of the American people as a pretty nice guy - the kind of guy they would feel comfortable with if he showed up at their front door ... Bush comes off as less pretentious and more down to earth ... 'Nice guy' is the way many express their response to Bush (who is) seen as the friendly neighbor next door."
Here's Mark Halperin, now senior political editor for Time: "When George W. Bush ran in 2000, many voters liked his straightforward, uncomplicated mean-what-I-say-and-say-what-I-mean certainty. He came across as a man of principle who did not lust for the White House; he was surrounded by disciplined loyalists who created a cheerful cult of personality about their candidate."
Americans haven't lost a willingness to like the charming ex-frat boy. Those supposed millions who were willing, in the now-clichéd phrase, to "have a beer with" Bush, aren't suddenly switching toward having coffee with some angry introvert. It's not the personality, it's the policies.
Bush and McCain may indeed have different personalities. But where, exactly, do their policies differ?
Iraq? Don't make me laugh. The McCain argument is that he was calling for the administration to change course and finally, after an electoral drubbing in 2006, Bush took McCain's advice and fired Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and sent additional troops to Iraq.
Except that until Bush fired Rumsfeld, McCain never actually called for his removal; he griped about stuff but never said publicly that Rumsfeld should be fired. And second, in realizing that the war effort wasn't going well but not saying so, all McCain was doing was agreeing with Bush - who said in an interview that he realized in 2006 things weren't going well but didn't want to say so publicly for fear of discouraging the troops.
If anything, McCain is more committed to a U.S. presence in Iraq than Bush. If you think invading Iraq was a good idea, and want U.S. troops there for years to come, then McCain isn't just a continuation of Bush's policies; he wants to push Bush's policies harder.
Or take the economy, where, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Institute. McCain's tax plan is even more regressive than Bush. McCain's plan throws even larger tax cuts at households at the very top of the income distribution than the tax cuts McCain originally opposed in 2001 because they were too generous to the "most fortunate" at the very top of the income distribution.
So how different is McCain if, on the biggest issues - Iraq and the economy - any differences between McCain and Bush are that McCain is more extreme?
If someone believes the country is headed in the wrong direction, would they really think that the solution is to keep going in that same direction, only faster? Other than John McCain, that is.