May 8, 2008

Furious McCainFour days after Arianna Huffington first reported it, John McCain's 2000 VoteGate has become the election issue du jour. The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times have all run stories confirming Huffington's account that in 2000 a still steaming McCain did not vote for George W. Bush, the man who savaged him and his family during the Republican primaries. But as the fevered denials from his campaign show, the story of McCain's hate-love relationship with Bush is the tale of Mr. Straght Talk's tightrope walk from personal pride to political opportunism.

Huffington's she said, he said about McCain's 2000 vote began on Monday. Huffington claimed that a gathering in Los Angeles after the November election John McCain told her, "I didn't vote for George Bush." (Cindy McCain, apparently more forthcoming about her 2000 vote than her 2007 tax returns, chimed in, "I didn't either.") After McCain spokesman Mark Salter protested, "it's not true and I ask you to consider the source," the Times and the Post verified Huffington's account with West Wing stars Bradley Whitford and Richard Schiff, both of whom were in attendance at Candace Bergen's Beverly Hills bash that night.

What is beyond dispute, however, is McCain's past hatred for George W. Bush. As Time reported in March 2000, McCain then showed a visceral disgust towards Bush and his scorched earth campaign:

But many close McCain advisers think the personal rift between the two men is too wide to bridge, at least in the near term. After all, the last time Bush tried to smooth things over-at a South Carolina debate in early February-the result was less than promising. During a commercial break, Bush grasped McCain's hands and made a sugary plea for less acrimony in their campaign. When McCain pointed out that Bush's allies were savaging him in direct-mail and phone campaigns, Bush played the innocent. "Don't give me that shit," McCain growled, pulling away. "And take your hands off me."

John McCain could certainly be forgiven for his anger, given the painful memories of character assassination, smears and lies the Bush camp dished out during the 2000 campaign. After McCain's upset win in the New Hampshire primary, Bush operatives during the critical South Carolina contest phoned voters with push polls implying McCain was anti-Catholic, his wife Cindy a drug addict, and that he had fathered an illegitimate black child with a prostitute. (In reality, the McCains had adopted a baby from an orphanage in Bangladesh.) McCain even received an early version of the Swift Boat treatment, with allegations that his Vietnam War captivity in Hanoi left him mentally unstable. All of these slurs came as candidate Bush chastised McCain that he couldn't "take the high horse and then claim the low road." It's no wonder he angrily rejected Bush's feigned attempt in 2000 to bury the hatchet.

But by 2004, John McCain was looking towards his next White House run - and life after Bush. McCain's presidential ambitions let him forgive sins past in order to rebuild relations with Bush and the Republican establishment. McCain's long road back began during election 2004. McCain not only stumped for George W. Bush, but joined the chorus of the Swift Boat hacks by stating that "what John Kerry did after the war is very legitimate political discussion." (Only the previous month, McCain himself called the attacks on Kerry "dishonest and dishonorable.") Dana Perino was exaggerating only slightly when she claimed that "in 2000 and 2004, Senator McCain went on to work his tail off to help this president."

From there, the selling of John McCain's soul proceeded quickly and his Faustian bargain began to pay dividends. At the Southern Leadership Conference in March 2006, McCain McCain asked the delegates to throw their support to President Bush. McCain used the venue to offer a full-throated support of President Bush and his Iraq policy, proclaiming "We elected him, we need him, he needs to do well and the country needs him." McCain turned his vitriol towards the President's critics, claiming that anyone who said Bush lied about WMD in Iraq "was lying." By mid-2006, McCain had secured the backing of much of the Bush financial machine.

The rest, as they say, is history. With the GOP nomination still hanging in the balance, John McCain in February proclaimed, "I would be proud to have President Bush campaign with me and support me in any way that he feels is appropriate. And I would appreciate it." Having adopted virtually the entire Bush agenda in his 2008 run (including an acrobatic flip-flop on making the Bush tax cuts permanent), John McCain in March warmly accepted Bush's Rose Garden endorsement as coming from" a man who I have a great admiration, respect and affection" for.

But with the Republican nomination secured, McCain began the great walk back from George Walker Bush and his record-setting disapproval numbers. On April 1, 2008, McCain laughably claimed, "I'm not running on the Bush presidency." And during his so-called "Forgotten Places" tour, McCain lambasted Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina. (That show of disgust was merely that - a show. As it turns out, his campaign staff is closely coordinating with the White House to create the facade of separation between John McCain and George W. Bush.)

As the general election approaches, the Arizona Senator has completed his fawning courtship of George W. Bush. But in suppressing his burning hatred for Bush in the name of his no-holds barred pursuit of the White House, John McCain may yet pay a price with the American people. As the New Republic's Michael Crowley suggested last August, John McCain is about to learn "you can't un-sell out."

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