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McCain Turns to Bush '00 Formula: "A Different Kind of Republican"

April 23, 2008

As this week's "Forgotten Places" tour of America shows, John McCain doesn't merely represent a continuation of George W. Bush's tenure in the White House. He's planning on traveling the same road to get there. Facing an American electorate which overwhelmingly rejects his policies across virtually every issue, John McCain is running as a "different kind of Republican." And that makes him no different from the Republican George W. Bush of 2000.
As McCain travels to Selma, Youngstown and other places "left behind" by Republicans past, his challenge is clear. He must run as far away as possible as possible from his party's policies, priorities and President. While President Bush's approval ratings reach new historic lows, 81% of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track. Surveys consistently show that Americans prefer Democratic positions on almost every major issue. And with the slowing economy and jobs now topping Americans' national priorities, the landscape is not a friendly one for the GOP.
Which means John McCain and the Republican Party have to make the election about something else. In 2008 as in 2000, it will be about the "character" of the man, to prove that John McCain, as the Washington Post described it, is "a different kind of Republican."
In contrast to the GOP's tattered brand of corruption, incompetence, divisiveness and failure at home and abroad, McCain on his tour is offering the face of optimism, the facade of compassion and a hauntingly familiar pledge of unity:

"There must be no forgotten places in America, whether they have been ignored for long years by the sins of indifference and injustice, or have been left behind as the world grew smaller and more economically interdependent. In America, we have always believed that if the day was a disappointment, we would win tomorrow." (April 21, 2008)
"I am aware of the fact that there will be many people who will not vote for me. But I'm going to be the president of all the people and I will work for all the people and I will listen to all people -- whether they decide to vote for me or not." (April 21, 2008)

For its part, the Republican National Committee is playing its part in McCain's game of "make believe we're not Republicans." While the RNC decried the "lip-service and empty rhetoric, a la Senator Clinton and Barack Obama," its chairman Mike Duncan praised McCain's extreme makeover for the GOP, saying "It has a lot to do with campaigning in places where Republicans don't normally campaign."
If it seems like we've been here before, it's only because we have. On his way to the White House, John McCain is following in George W. Bush's footsteps from 2000.
Back in 1999, then Governor Bush famously launched his campaign on a theme of "compassionate conservatism." As CNN noted at the time, Bush's intent was to reach out to voters turned off by "how the G.O.P. of Gingrich and Trent Lott had grown too detached from Americans' lives." Governor Bush put his brand of faux compassion and ersatz unity this way:

"I am such an optimist about what is going on. But only if the prosperity is meant for everyone...I worry about the haves and the have-nots. [Mine] is a message that says nobody should be left behind."

As Fortune noted that March, Bush's self-description of "compassion conservative" had a very specific purpose:

What, exactly, will people get for their money? George W. calls himself a "compassionate conservative," which translates at the ballot box as a Republican trying to appeal to Democrats.

By the fall of 2000, the strategy of the Bush campaign against Al Gore was clear. As the New York Times described, George W. Bush turned to the same recipe John McCain would cook up eight years later:

Just before Mr. Bush started campaigning on Monday, his aides informed reporters that he would be showing up as "a different kind of Republican,'' which is what he was in the spring as well.
But this kind of Republican would now be reaching those ''real people,'' an obvious answer to Mr. Gore's references to ''working people'' and ''working families.''

Fast forward eight years and John McCain is dusting off Dubya's playbook. To become the next Republican president, he must run as anything but. Americans know how this ends. We can just think back to the 2000 election, look in the mirror and ask, "so, how did that work out for you?"


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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