WASHINGTON – What if your family was planning a big end-of-summer bash (a Grand Old Party, you might call it) but preferred that you not be seen – or heard?
That is the question hanging over President Bush, with eight weeks to go until Republicans gather in St. Paul to nominate John McCain as his successor. Convention planners, the White House and the McCain campaign are wrestling with how to choreograph a proper send-off for Bush – sure, his poll numbers are in the tank, but he is still the party leader and president of the United States – while hustling him out the door in time for McCain to look like his own man.
“It’s a very delicate situation,” said Brian Jones, a former communications director for McCain’s campaign who also was a top communications strategist during Bush’s 2004 run for re-election. “Even though the president is the president, this is going to be John McCain’s convention, and you want it to be about John McCain and what his presidency would be.”
A convention is a pivot point, and the theatrics and imagery are often more important than the words. For McCain, of Arizona, the convention imagery will be especially important, because he must show that he wants to take the nation in a new direction, away from Bush, yet he cannot escape Bush’s dominance of Republican Party politics for the last eight years.
The last time Republicans dealt with the passing-of-the-torch question, in 1988, the circumstances were very different. President Ronald Reagan was surging in popularity, and the big fear was that he would overshadow the nominee, the first George Bush, at the convention in New Orleans. So their aides worked out a plan intended to let Reagan “give oomph to the Bush candidacy,” without stealing the show, said Kenneth W. Duberstein, Reagan’s chief of staff.
Twenty years later, Duberstein still describes the plan with relish:
Reagan would speak on the opening night and fly out the next morning, just as Bush was arriving.
“We agreed to meet on the tarmac,” Duberstein said. “The two of them would embrace, and make brief remarks, and Bush would escort Reagan off to Air Force One, and salute the president as he departed New Orleans and the convention. And then George Bush would get in his motorcade after saluting Ronald Reagan, and go downtown to be the nominee of the Republican Party.”
In St. Paul, Bush will speak on the convention’s opening night, said Dana Perino, the White House press secretary – a tiny bit of news from an administration that typically keeps a close hold on the president’s schedule. The White House and the McCain campaign said the details were still being worked out. But one Republican close to McCain and Bush, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the president would give “an important speech” but that a joint appearance was “highly unlikely.”
Democrats face a similar quandary this year in figuring out what to do about former President Bill Clinton after the bitter nominating battle between his wife, Hillary Clinton, and the party’s presumptive nominee, Barack Obama.
In 2000, when Vice President Al Gore became the nominee in Los Angeles, Clinton made a grand entrance into the convention hall, winding his way through the backstage maze, his every move tracked by television cameras as though he were a late-night comic or football hero about to run onto the field.
“Elvis was most definitely in the building,” said Chris Lehane, a former top strategist for Gore, recalling the moment.
Clinton and Gore had a joint appearance in Michigan just before the convention. But by the time Gore arrived in Los Angeles, Clinton was long gone, a move that Lehane said had been designed to “balance benefiting from voters’ desires to continue the Clinton approach while allowing Gore to take the torch and emerge from the large Clinton shadow.”
This year, of course, McCain is trying to escape from Bush’s shadow. Most Republicans say Bush should play whatever role McCain wants him to. Some, like Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, simply wish Bush would keep out of it, though few would say so openly.
“I don’t think there are a lot of people who want to see him at the convention,” said Rohrabacher, who is especially irked with Bush for his stance on immigration. He said the president “should stay home from the Republican convention, and everybody would be better off.”
But others, like Rob Portman, a former congressman and budget director for Bush, say McCain would be unwise to put too much distance between himself and the sitting president.
“The president’s approval rating among Republicans’ base voters who are needed for a successful McCain campaign is relatively high,” Portman said.
That is the crux of the Republicans’ 2008 convention quandary. If the imagery coming out of St. Paul looks like a McCain-Bush hug fest, the Arizona senator will turn off voters who are through with Bush and want to move past him. If the imagery looks like McCain is trying to file for some kind of Republican divorce, it will turn off party conservatives who are already skeptical of McCain.
So Republicans may just have to grit their teeth.
“The assumption would be that there will be some kind of physical handoff,” said Jones, the former spokesman for both Bush and McCain. “I think there is a sense that they would appear together. He is the sitting president; he’s still popular among hard-core Republicans; McCain has some issues with hard-core Republicans. Some people will say this was a bad way to play it, but I think it’s one of those things where you have to run through it, and do it, and embrace it.”