The Bush campaign, which for months seemingly did everything right,
suddenly seems to be doing everything wrong. First, Bush let J. Thomas
Burch, Jr., slam John McCain as an enemy of veterans while introducing
Bush at a rally in South Carolina. About the unpromising nature of this
line of attack, not to mention its offensiveness, not much need be said.
McCain, of course, hit back hard. (
Ponnuru's take on a McCain speech in San Francisco this weekend touching
on this point.)
Bush's new line of attack is that McCain is a hypocrite: He flies around
on corporate jets, he has lobbyists working for his campaign, he uses his
Commerce Committee chairmanship to shake down businesses, etc. This isn't
going to work either. First, because McCain is a war hero. Character
attacks of any kind are going to be a tough sell. Second, McCain has
pre-emptively defused the charge by saying that the campaign-finance
system corrupts everyone (or at least creates the appearance of corrupting
everyone), including him. Third, Bush's attack highlights McCain's issue.
Bush is implying, after all, that there's something seriously wrong with
prevailing campaign-finance practices; but unlike McCain, he won't do
anything about it.
Bush has also adopted the self-description of "a reformer with results"
an elaboration of the previous distinction he has made between McCain, the
legislator, and himself, the executive. The message: McCain talks; Bush
gets things done. This, too, is an attempt to raise a kind of character
issue. Voters, though, may well consider military experience a substitute
for executive experience. Bill Bradley, the ethereal intellectual wannabe,
can be effectively painted as an impractical bloviator. McCain's
credentials as a man of action are firmly established. And Bush is
dreaming if he thinks governors get elected president on the strength of
their state records. Finally, of course, the "reformer" attack also
highlights a McCain theme. The Arizona senator himself identified the
basic flaw in Bush's approach to him: "It seems to me the Bush campaign
can't figure out whether to imitate me or attack me," McCain told the
Note the defensiveness of Bush's tax ads, which always emphasize that he
does too devote money to Social Security and debt reduction. Bush's South
Carolina ad on the subject argues that McCain is misrepresenting his plan
and claims that "McCain's own economic adviser says he supports Bush's
plan. . ." The reference is to ex-congressman Vin Weber, who recently told
Don Lambro of the Washington Times that if he were still in Congress and a
Republican president proposed Bush's plan he would vote for it. This is,
as Weber notes, not the same as saying that he favors Bush's plan over
McCain's. He favors McCain's plan (as he explains in an overheated press
release from the McCain campaign).
It looks more and more as though Bush is just going to have to take on
McCain in a debate and beat him - if he can.