McCain's Delicate Dance Away From Bush

John McCain has his work cut out for him. Whatever the issue and whatever his position on a topic, the response from Barack Obama is: "It's more George Bush."

When McCain came out in favor of lifting the ban on offshore drilling, he got the "just like Bush" retort. When he lambasted the Supreme Court for creating a new right for terror suspects to march into federal courts with trial lawyers at their side, he was again tagged as carrying on George Bush's legacy. (Ironically, McCain had opposed Bush and fought to institute military tribunals to provide a fair resolution for detainees. That will go under the heading of "no good deed goes unpunished.") And so it goes -- on issues from Iraq to taxes.

With Bush's ratings in the doldrums it is likely McCain's biggest challenge will be how to escape the shadow of an unpopular president. McCain is gamely trying two tactics, but with mixed success.

The first strategy is to find issues on which he can distance himself from Bush. He has done this, to the chagrin of the conservative base, clearly on global warming. He also has tried to remind voters that he opposed Bush's Iraq policy for years. However, the past differences with the Bush Administration have become blurred since Bush adopted the surge strategy. (Voters now find it hard to recall that McCain was a thorn in Bush's and especially Donald Rumsfeld's sides for years.)

Incurring the wrath of Karl Rove (conspiratorial minded types will see a Rovian plot to amplify a disagreement with Bush), McCain has also adopted a fair amount of populist rhetoric on everything from oil company profits to taxes to CEO salaries to the mortgage crisis to health care. But again, when he advocates retention of the Bush tax cuts, his other domestic policy differences with Bush tend to be overshadowed.

McCain's other tactic is to attack Bush's management style and persona, a tricky task but one potentially more productive than weaving in and out of Bush policy positions. The list of disagreeable traits associated with Bush is well known: incompetent, divisive, immune to facts and secluded. McCain seems to be methodically going through the list of Bush's worst qualities and telling voters, "Not me!"

On the incompetence front, McCain has made his biting indictments of the government's performance in responding to Katrina a staple of his speeches and his rhetoric. McCain sounded like Bush's harshest Democratic opponents when he railed, "There was unqualified people in charge, there was a total misreading of the dimensions of the disaster, there was a failure of communications.''