John McCain was working hard yesterday to separate himself from George W. Bush, and, at least rhetorically, he was doing a decent job. But in the end, he could not escape the failed president's potentially deadly embrace.
During a speech in swing-state Ohio - where it is essential that McCain remove his ball and chain, lest he lose his opportunity to draw independent voters in November - he repeatedly signaled his intention to govern in ways that bear no resemblance to the infamous Bush style:
1. "If I am elected president, I will work with anyone who sincerely wants to get this country moving again. I will listen to any idea that is offered in good faith..."
Translation: He Who Shall Not Be Named has refused to listen to outside advice, which is one reason the country is not moving forward.
2. "I will seek the counsel of members of Congress of both parties in forming government policy before I ask them to support it. I will ask Democrats to serve in my administration."
Translation: He Who Shall Not Be Named has sought to govern by partisan fiat, freezing out the other party, which over the pst eight years has represented roughly half the American people. I won't do that.
3. "My administration will set a new standard for transparency and accountability. I will hold weekly press conferences."
Translation: He Who Shall Not Be Named has been secretive and unaccountable, refusing to communicate with the American people or to respect the free press. I will be different.
4. "When we make errors, I will confess them readily, and explain what we intend to do to correct them."
Translation: He Who Shall Not Be Named has repeatedly refused to 'fess up when he screws up. I will.
5. "I will ask Congress to grant me the privilege of coming before both houses to take questions, and address criticism, much the same as the Prime Minister of Great Britain appears regularly before the House of Commons."
Translation: He Who Shall Not Be Named, comfortably situated inside his bubble, has repeatedly treated a co-equal branch of government with unprecedented disdain. I will pierce that bubble.
All told, that was pretty strong stuff. It's hard to know, of course, whether McCain would actually do everything he promised, but, at least in terms of stump rhetoric, those passages were a decent counterweight to the Democratic charge that McCain is just the equivalent of a third Bush term. So far, so good...until...
...Until Bush opened his mouth in Israel.
As we all know by now, the president, while addressing the Knesset on the occasion of Israel's 60th anniversary as a nation, equated Barack Obama and the Democrats with Nazi appeasers on the eve of World War II. He never uttered Obama's name, but, as the White House later confirmed to CNN, he fully intended the insinuation:
"Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals...We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared, 'Lord if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.' We have an obligation to call this what it is - the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history."
I won't dwell on the irony that we again are being lectured on foreign policy by the architect (or front man) of what is clearly one of the worst foreign policy regimes in American history. I don't even want to debate whether it is appropriate for a president to launch a domestic political attack while supposedly practicing statecraft on foreign soil. I want to get right to McCain.
When asked yesterday whether he agreed with Bush, he really had no choice about how to respond. Notwithstanding his words of separation in Ohio, he had to embrace his leader. No Republican running for president can afford to defy the commander in chief and insist that, actually, no, it is wrong to equate the Democrats with appeasers of Nazism. Doing that would risk angering the conservative GOP base.
And so McCain replied that Bush was "exactly right" about the perils of talking to bad guys, and that Obama "needs to explain" why he desires to sit down and talk with bad guys, especially those who have been "directly responsible for the deaths of brave young Americans."
The problem is, anybody who embraces Bush, at least on this issue, automatically becomes detached from factual reality. Because here's the thing:
Just 48 hours ago, Defense secretary Robert Gates - this is Bush's own guy - voiced a willingness to negotiate with the bad guys in Iran. He said in a speech to retired diplomats that it is important "to sit down and talk with them. If there is going to be a discussion, then they need something, too. We can't go to a discussion and be completely the demander, with them not feeling that they need anything from us."
America can't be "completely the demander"? America needs to meet with bad guys and engage in give and take? Sounds like a Nazi appeaser to me.
And consider General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. They've been talking to Iranian officials for months. They too must be the equivalent of Nazi appeasers.
And let's not forget Colin Powell and James Baker (the co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, and in an earlier incarnation, the Republican lawyer who helped put Bush in the White House with his maneuvers in Florida). They too have long suggested the increased use of diplomacy as a tool to deal with the bad guys. I guess they too must be the equivalent of Nazi appeasers. And the same must be true for ex-senior Bush national security advisor Brent Scowcroft, since he too has called for diplomacy. And the same must be true for Henry Kissinger; he negotiated directly with the Vietnamese communists - even though they were (borrowing McCain's words) "directly responsible for the deaths of brave young Americans."
And it gets even worse: McCain himself has advocated talking to bad guys. When asked during a 2006 interview, on Sky News (the British all-news TV network), whether American diplomats should talk to Hamas, in the wake of the terrorist group's electoral takeover of the Palestinian government, McCain replied in the affirmative: "They're the government. Sooner or later we're going to have to deal with them, one way or another, and I understand why this administration and previous administrations had such antipathy to Hamas because of their dedication to violence...But it's a new reality in the Middle East." (The video is available here.)
So you see the big problem for McCain. Embracing Bush is the antithesis of straight talk. Any time he feels obligated to go to bat for the president, he risks sharing the same bubble, where insinuations reign and facts are fungible - to the point where he even has to renounce his own previous words. He would be far better served if Bush said as little as possible between now and November, lest he again be lured back into the fold.
Which merely reminds me of Michael Corelone's lament, as he sought to go legit during Godfather III: "Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in."
A postscript: Who was that American senator, anyway? The one cited by Bush for having whined, "Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler..."? Surely it must have been some weak-kneed Democrat. To satisfy my curiousity, I did a spot of checking.
And guess what: the wimp turns out to be...a Republican.
Senator William Borah was a GOP isolationist who opposed U.S. entry into World War II - a war, if I recall correctly, that was prosecuted by a Democrat, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Funny how Bush neglected to mention any of that. And he was merely recycling the Borah line anyway. His ex-war team leader, Donald Rumsfeld, used the same quote in a speech during the summer of 2006. And Rummy somehow omitted Borah's name and affiliation, as well.
No wonder two-thirds of the American people are counting down the days to Jan. 20.