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.''

As for the divisiveness rap it has become accepted wisdom that Bush failed to live up to his "uniter not a divider" mantra. (One can argue that the Democrats were at least equally responsible for the political vitriol over the last seven years, but the public lays blame, as it does most everything else they haven't liked in the last seven years, at Bush's feet.) McCain in this regard is truly positioning himself as the anti- Bush. He has taken up the mantle of bipartisan bridge builder and promised everything from Democrats in his cabinet to question sessions with Congress.

And, of course, McCain is delighted to share the many instances in which he defied party loyalty on campaign finance reform, torture or climate change. Moreover, his entire campaign aimed at capturing independents and disaffected Democrats seems to be a refutation of the Bush-Rove theory of endlessly expanding and bolstering the Republican base.

As for the "sheltered from facts" dig, McCain again seems happy to stress that on key issues he was and continues to be a "realist." (The unspoken remainder of that label is "and not like George Bush.") After all he legitimately can claim to have been more willing to recognize bad news, advocate dismissal of Rumsfeld and urge a revision of the entire approach to Iraq. (The irony that Obama can now be accused of being willfully indifferent to political and military developments only increases the temptation to push this line of argument.)

Likewise on stem cell research, McCain candidly admitted that he changed his mind after "getting briefed by very smart people on this issue and including discussing this with Nancy Reagan."

Finally, McCain has offered an entirely different style than Bush when it comes to interacting with the media. In short, he interacts. Indeed, he won't leave the press alone and encourages access, spontaneous interaction and endless questioning which the Bush administration (and its two presidential campaigns) would never have dreamed of permitting. In part, that is driven no doubt by poor financial resources and the desire to garner as much free media as possible. But it is also pure McCain: there isn't a debate or argument he isn't ready to have. His confidence in his own ability to persuade has only been bolstered by his success in transforming Iraq policy and the resulting political dialogue.

So, to a large degree, the message of differentiation from Bush is more stark when it comes to McCain's style and personal attributes than his policy stances. Both will be needed to convince voters that he will be a different kind of president than Bush. Voters who overwhelmingly are convinced that we are "on the wrong track" will need assurance that in style and substance McCain's election will not be a Bush third term.

Can he do it? To a greater degree than anyone thought possible he's beating the generic Democrat/Republican polling and making the race "closer than it should be." He'll need to do more "not me" work if he is going to pull off an upset even greater than his and his opponent's primary wins.