McCain Discards Bush

In my New York Sun column, I observe that Hurricane Gustav gives John McCain the chance to remove George W. Bush from the program and become his own man.

“The unifying thread connecting many of this week’s tumultuous events — the scaling back of much of the Republican National Convention due to Hurricane Gustav, the canceling of President Bush‘s speech to delegates, and even the selection of the governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, as Mr. McCain‘s running mate — is the reintroduction to America of Mr. McCain outside of Mr. Bush’s shadow.

Mr. Bush, whose approval ratings languish between the high 20s and low 30s, represents the greatest weight on Mr. McCain’s candidacy. Mr. Obama’s line last week was typical of the type of attack Mr. McCain can expect during the next two months: “McCain likes to talk about judgment, but really, what does it say about your judgment when you think George Bush was right more than 90 percent of the time?” Now, thanks to events planned and unplanned, Mr. McCain is about to emerge as entirely his own man.

Mr. McCain’s rejiggering of the convention schedule in St. Paul provides the strongest contrast with President Bush. Mr. Bush’s plummet into historically low unpopularity began with the administration’s mishandling of Hurricane Katrina. Although he was not the only public actor to have failed during the crisis — state and city authorities also played a major role in the disaster — Mr. Bush never recovered from the images of Americans stranded and helpless outside of the New Orleans convention center.

The new plan for the Republican convention shows that Mr. McCain, unlike Mr. Bush, will give domestic crises his full attention. His comments when he pledged ‘that tomorrow night, and if necessary, throughout our convention if necessary, to act as Americans not Republicans, because America needs us now no matter whether we are Republican or Democrat’ set the tone.

Even before the formation of Hurricane Gustav, Mr. Bush’s speech to the convention stood as the most awkward part of the convention schedule. Mr. Bush is toxic among Democrats, unpopular with independents, and hit-or-miss, even, with many Republicans. Under normal circumstances, it’s just not possible to remove a sitting president and the symbolic head of the party from a convention schedule. With the danger of a hurricane landfall looming, Mr. McCain was able to get both Mr. Bush and the even more politically poisonous Mr. Cheney off the national stage.”

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