With an assist from the unending Democratic nomination race, John McCain has levitated above his party this spring. But antithetical answers that McCain offered on the economy just one day apart this month crystallized the challenge he will face in staying aloft as President Bush’s support plummets to uncharted depths.
On April 17, McCain told Bloomberg Television, “You could make an argument that there’s been great progress economically” since Bush took office, even though that was “no comfort” to “families now … facing these tremendous economic challenges.” Democrats immediately seized on the portion of the answer praising the president to paint McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee, as both too insular and too close to Bush.
McCain’s camp ferociously accused Democrats of misrepresenting his remarks by omitting his “no comfort” caveat. But that argument seemed strained: Even qualified praise is still praise. In any case, after a day of battering from Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, McCain raised the white flag. He went back on Bloomberg’s Political Capital With Al Hunt and declared, “In fact, I think Americans are not better off than they were eight years ago, when you look at what has happened to middle-income Americans.”
There in miniature is the dilemma McCain faces as public discontent with Bush continues to crest. Gallup reported on Tuesday that just 28 percent of Americans approved of Bush’s performance, which is his worst showing yet. Even more striking, 69 percent of Americans said they disapproved of Bush’s performance. That’s the highest disapproval rating for a president that Gallup has ever recorded, higher even than Richard Nixon’s just before his resignation. Bush has established a new high in lows.
Despite Bush’s collapse, McCain has continued to run competitively in general election polls against both Obama and Clinton. Yet Bush’s epic descent leaves McCain juggling unpalatable options.
In this environment, embracing Bush—even as gingerly as McCain did in his first Bloomberg answer—is like hugging an anchor. “Anybody who could say that first statement, given the mood people are in now,” says Democratic pollster Guy Molyneux, “almost undermines his credibility in saying anything else about the economy.”
But rejecting Bush, as McCain did in his second Bloomberg response, is dangerous, too. That’s partly because it risks further depressing the Republican base. More fundamentally, because McCain, like Bush, has built his economic plan around big tax cuts, portraying Bush’s approach as a failure risks invalidating McCain’s own agenda.
McCain is trying to separate himself from Bush by promising less spending. But the larger message is convergence: McCain has pledged not only to extend the Bush tax cuts but to expand them with about $300 billion annually in further reductions, mostly for corporations. What’s the case for doubling down with more tax cuts if McCain concedes that the Bush strategy hasn’t benefited average families? That admission, as one senior GOP strategist says, “would seem to repudiate much of what you stand for, because you still don’t have a clear demarcation between McCain economics and Bush economics.”
McCain is playing a tough hand, both on facts and politics. The economy has grown under Bush (2.5 percent annually after inflation), but the rate of growth has trailed the pace under every president since Dwight Eisenhower, except George H.W. Bush. Likewise, federal data show that job growth has averaged less than 1 percent annually under this Bush—lower than it was under any president since World War II. The median income—the best measure of the average family’s prosperity—has declined slightly since Bush took office, after rising 16 percent under Bill Clinton. The number of Americans in poverty has increased by 3.5 million under Bush after declining by nearly 8 million under Clinton.
Bush supporters can list extenuating circumstances: 9/11, the bursting of the high-tech and housing bubbles. But the public judges presidents by results, and its verdict on Bush’s results is now unequivocal—and profoundly unsympathetic.
That undertow hasn’t yet sunk McCain. Largely because of his reputation for independence, he is still attracting nearly 30 percent of voters who are dissatisfied with Bush’s economic performance, according to the latest ABC/Washington Post survey. But McCain’s tangled gyrations on Bloomberg demonstrated the challenge he’ll face in holding those voters with an economic agenda that promises continuity with, rather than change from, the policies of a president who has flatly lost the country’s confidence.
This article appears in the April 26, 2008, edition of National Journal.