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Opportunism Knocks

How McCain sold out.

To grasp the strangeness of the current rapprochement between President George W. Bush and Senator John McCain, you need to understand the saga of John Weaver, the political operative who brokered the peace. Long before many Democrats became Bush haters, Weaver was already there. As a chief strategist for John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign, he bore witness to the carnage of the primary in South Carolina, where Bush campaign proxies spread spurious rumors about their rival's venereal diseases, treasonous wartime behavior, and the black child he sired with a prostitute. That experience alone might have been enough to drive Weaver from the Republican Party. But the Bushies--and especially Karl Rove, whose rivalry with Weaver dated back to their early careers in Texas--took all the steps necessary to seal the deal. At the direction of the White House, GOP campaign contracts stopped coming Weaver's way. In one widely reported instance, Rove allegedly prevented Weaver from joining Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions's reelection campaign. Things got so bad for Weaver that McCain told talk-show host Don Imus in March 2002, "John was made unwelcome in the Republican Party. He does have a right to make a living."

In early 2002, Weaver reregistered as a Democrat. And even that doesn't do justice to his alienation. Soon after crossing the aisle, he signed contracts with the Association of Trial Lawyers of America and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (dccc)--two organizations deeply committed to the defeat of Republican candidates. He joined the inner circle of consultants planning Dick Gephardt's presidential campaign. (Had he not developed cancer, he would have likely remained active in that campaign.) And, to almost any reporter who called, he articulated a stinging critique of the Bushies.

So, the fact that he agreed to sit down for coffee with Rove later this spring was, itself, a shocking turn of events. The results of their meeting are even harder to assimilate. Not only has Weaver helped arrange a series of BushMcCain appearances--including two days of joint campaigning planned for the middle of the Republican National Convention--but he has also become a primary liaison between the two camps.

This detente is, of course, a kick in the gut for McCain's Democratic admirers, many of whom hoped the senator's persistent criticism of the administration could become a weapon for John Kerry in his run against Bush--or that McCain might even be persuaded to join Kerry in a kind of national unity ticket. When the senator's advisers encounter such Democratic disappointment, they answer it with bemusement. "You forgot he was a Republican," says one, chuckling to himself. Indeed, McCain has strongly supported the war in Iraq and the hawkish thrust of Bush foreign policy. But, given that McCain had bucked his party's line on seemingly every important piece of domestic policy from tax cuts to health care to stem cells to global warming, it was an understandable lapse. What Democrats also forgot was that McCain is an ambitious, self-interested politician. His new relationship with Bush is simply a recalculation of that self-interest.

When McCain first learned of Bush's desire to campaign with him, he joked to aides, "I guess that means they're desperate." But, by appealing to McCain for help, the White House wasn't so much flailing as filling a need. Polling showed that the Republican base had rallied to the president's side in unprecedented fashion. But Bush had begun hemorrhaging independents in the process. By the middle of the summer, a CBS poll showed Kerry leading by 17 points with these voters--even though they had evenly divided their allegiances three months earlier. Because independents were responsible for McCain's against-the-odds victories in the 2000 New Hampshire and Michigan primaries, many pundits and strategists have ascribed McCain an iconic standing with this group. (In part, the dccc hired Weaver to explain McCain's method of wooing this set.) And the data largely supported this conventional wisdom. When pollsters tested a Kerry-McCain ticket, the Democratic candidate suddenly gained a 14-point advantage.

The McCain camp must have experienced more than a little schadenfreude at Rove's sudden solicitation of Weaver. After all, it wasn't just Weaver whom Rove had treated shabbily. In 2001, pro-Bush forces in New Hampshire campaigned to recall two Republican National Committee members who had backed McCain. Others found their applications for administration jobs rejected. This vendetta infected the entire legislative process. Except in passing the Iraq war resolution, the White House never called McCain for help--and, even then, the president worked largely through senators and other proxies to communicate with McCain's office.

McCain liked that the White House was suddenly groveling for his help. "You'll never hear him say it, but there's a lot of satisfaction for John McCain in knowing how badly George Bush needs him," speculates Dan Schnur, communications director of McCain's 2000 campaign. From the start of the administration, Rove had suggested that elections could be won by turning out the party's conservative base. By employing McCain to woo swing voters, Rove essentially conceded the hollowness of his strategy, and that provided its own emotional satisfaction.

But ultimately, the McCain-Bush rapprochement has less to do with McCain's ego than with his political ambitions. McCainiacs like to joke about how they run an improvisational operation devoid of long-term planning. "When you expect them to zig, they zag," says one Democrat who has worked closely with McCain's Senate office. "They don't seem to always know where they're going." But they do have one guiding star: The White House, a prize that still holds their interest and has directly entered into their calculus. (McCain would be 72 on Election Day, 2008.)

That calculus is complicated and requires explanation. For most of the Bush administration, McCain seemed to have grown so alienated from his party that he would never have a prayer of winning its nomination. At some moments, it looked like he might follow Weaver into the Democratic Party and pursue the presidency from there. (Three years ago, McCainologists read great significance into a weekend spent with Tom Daschle at McCain's Sedona cabin.) And, at other times, he has looked prone to launch a third party candidacy. In 2001, Weaver, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, and other advisers met at Bacchus Restaurant in Dupont Circle to discuss such a bid.

But neither option ever gained much traction. According to aides, McCain never seriously entertained the idea of becoming a Democrat. It was always a third party run--the same path taken by his idol, Theodore Roosevelt, in 1912--that piqued his interest. But, when McCain's advisers tried to imagine scenarios for such a candidacy, they kept encountering severe obstacles. Most concluded that the two-party system is too entrenched to be effectively challenged. And, with the nation increasingly polarized by Bush, the zeitgeist seemed unsuited to a new party. "They have decided that their only hope is to burnish their Republican credentials," says one operative close to McCain.

Of course, there's one major problem with this strategy: McCain's pursuit of campaign finance reform turned him into a pariah among Republicans. During the fall of 2001, a meeting of House Republicans broke into boos at the mere mention of his name. As Grover Norquist summed up the GOP's thinking to The Washington Post that June, "He is not drifting right. He is not drifting left. He is drifting in front of the television cameras." That's why the appearances with Bush are considered so necessary. Schnur argues, "Nobody is going to say that John McCain didn't do everything he could to help him. Even if that doesn't ultimately play into a 2008 discussion, it ought to give him points for loyalty."

For all this speculation, McCain hasn't dropped many hints that help resolve the riddle of his reconciliation with Bush. Since hitting the trail with the president, he has uncharacteristically refrained from freewheeling sessions with reporters, while going out of his way to highlight the fact that he isn't completely on board, as he did earlier this month with his criticisms of Bush's plan for redeploying troops based in South Korea. And that's only the beginning of the mixed signals. While Weaver and Rove hammered out the details of their bosses' alliance, McCain strung John Kerry along, leaving open the possibility that he might accept the vice-presidential nomination. (According to one report in the Los Angeles Times, Kerry and McCain had seven conversations about the subject. A McCain adviser said that it was more like two.) And in May, he appeared on "The Daily Show" to ridicule the administration and flaunt his independence.

In the absence of a convincing explanation of his motives, the press has resorted to analyzing McCain's body language. Last week, The New York Times ran four stopaction photos that documented a bear hug between McCain and his old foe. On their own, the pictures yielded an array of comically awkward images. But the Times neglected to provide an essential piece of context: The bear hug was a carefully choreographed maneuver, a corrective for one of Bush's past faux pas. During the 2000 campaigns, Bush and McCain's interactions weren't just politically awkward, they were physically painful. At the GOP convention, with balloons falling from the ceiling of Philadelphia's First Union Center, Bush lifted McCain's arm in the time-honored tradition. Unfortunately, McCain's experience in the Hanoi Hilton prevents him from executing this motion without excruciating jolts pulsing through his nerves. McCainiacs have long remembered this moment as a symbol of Bush's wretched treatment of their hero. As they recall the tableau, McCain, gritting his teeth, muttered to Bush, "It doesn't go there." Apparently, now it does.

This article originally appeared in the September 6, 2004 issue of the magazine