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Prisoner of Bush

In the next few days, a slew of folks will begin the dissection of what went wrong for John McCain. Was it immigration? Was it his fundraising? Was it his energy level?  But there will be a one word explanation for McCain's failure: Bush.
/ Source: NBC News

In the next few days, a slew of folks will begin the dissection of what went wrong for John McCain. Was it immigration? Was it his fundraising? Was it his energy level?

There's an argument to be made for all of the above and thanks to the McCain camp's comfort with many members of the media, expect a lot of reporters to get their hands on fascinating details of internal disputes between the principle players in this latest campaign drama.

Already, the "he said, he said" between those loyal to John Weaver and those loyal to Rick Davis is filling up reporters' notebooks fast. Whose idea was it to get into salary bidding wars with a self-funder like Mitt Romney? Whose idea was it to spend so much so early on infrastructure when it wasn't clear $100 million was doable? Whose idea was it to build a 50-state operation before the four-state operation was in place?

But instead of focusing on the minutia of now, let's look at how McCain's presidential tries will look in five years, assuming this is basically it.

There will be a one word explanation for McCain's failure: Bush - the "Newman" (Jerry Seinfeld's annoying rival) in McCain's tragic presidential sitcom.

The role Bush played in stopping McCain's rise in 2000 is obvious and has been chronicled with great detail. But for Bush's dismantling of McCain's Republican credentials in the 2000 South Carolina primary, McCain probably wins the presidency in a much more decisive way than Bush did that year.

However if that were the only example of McCain being stopped by Bush, this tragic sitcom would only have a pilot.

There's a saying, if you can't beat him, join him - or in McCain's case, become him. But becoming Bush wasn't a good idea. With the help and influence of longtime adviser John Weaver, McCain attempted to re-create what they viewed as the best of Bush's two campaigns -- 2000 and 2004.

They did what they thought Bush did in 2000, created the illusion of juggernaut by signing up activists left and right. But the campaign didn't have the revenue stream (i.e. Rolodex) that Bush had in 2000 to pay for these expensive endorsements.

Then, there's the courting process that McCain attempted with social conservatives, not unlike what Bush did in '98 and '99. At the time, Bush was still carrying his dad's political baggage with this crowd. But through a concerted effort, Bush made himself acceptable with this crowd.

Well, McCain, circa '06-07, tried the same thing. But it didn't work because he seemed to undermine his positives with independents while not getting the same positive lift with rank-n-file social conservatives.

But it wasn't just in structure that McCain attempted his Bush transformation, it was also on issues. The two signature issues that have helped bring about Bush's historically dismal job ratings -- Iraq and immigration -- served as a deadly one-two punch for McCain, with immigration perhaps being the deadlier issue politically. Showing resolve on Iraq was actually winning him grudging respect from leery conservatives. But McCain's resolve on immigration was too much of a reminder of the McCain conservatives learned to loath in 2000. 

McCain's political career now will forever be entangled with Bush. He was the lovable loser of 2000, the guy who came out of 2000 more popular than either Bush or Gore.  And then, when he attempted to emulate his one-time foe, what does that bring him: one of the most dramatic downfalls of a presidential frontrunner in sometime.

The bitter irony for McCain, of course, is that one gets the sense that the country is yearning to support a candidate whose profile is McCain's, but circa 2000 not today. The public appears burnt out on partisanship and wants a post-partisan leader. That was John McCain in 2000. Of course, the public liked McCain's schtick in 2000 but didn't crave it, which is why he didn't win.

2008 appears to be different. Independent voters, in particular, seem desperate to support a candidate who isn't too tied to one party's ideology. In short, the public may really yearn for the 2000 version of John McCain.

It's this John McCain that one should expect to see again on the campaign trail. It's his last best chance to recover.

There's a Shakespearan quality to McCain's political problems. If the ending is as unhappy as things appear now, some writer more talented than I will have a literary field day entangling Bush and McCain, painting McCain as the tragic hero who spends his final days muttering the name "Bush."