Bush: Not Doing McCain Any Favors

UPDATE, May 16: Today in South Dakota, Obama responded to Bush's remarks. Read my take here

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Yesterday, we chronicled Vice President Dick Cheney's first foray onto the 2008 campaign trailand its catastrophic conclusion: a loss in Mississippi's scarlet red First District for Republican Congressional wannabe Greg Davis... to a Democrat (shudder). Now Cheney's second-in-command, President George W. Bush, has injected himself into the race as well--and his debut is proving to be even more spectacularly disastrous than his not-so-better half's.

Dubya's first mistake? Choice of venue. Speaking earlier today before the Israeli parliament in honor of the country's 60th anniversary, Bush kicked off the festivities by acting more or less, you know, "presidential." He spoke of America's unwavering support for the Jewish State. He portrayed the future of the Middle East as a time of "tolerance and integration." He reiterated his belief that democracy would triumph over terrorism. Oh, and then he used the diplomatic forum to launch a veiled but stinging attack on Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, breaking the unwritten rule of U.S. politics that partisan bickering stops at our water's edge. "Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals," he said in the Knesset, "as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along." The "some," White House aides privately confirmedto CNN, referred to Obama, who has said that as president he will engage in direct talks with the heads of hostile states--but has also made it abundantly clear that he will not sit down with "terrorists and radicals" like, say, Hamas. So much for seeming presidential.

And that was only the beginning. Turning up the heat, Bush went on to cast himself as Winston Churchill to Obama's Neville Chamberlain, implying that the Democratic senator favors "appeasing" terrorists much as some Western leaders sought to appease Adolf Hitler in the run-up to World War II. "We have heard this foolish delusion before," said Bush. "As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: 'Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.' We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history." Hyperbolic Nazi comparisons = never a political winner. Oy vey, indeed.

There is, of course, a valuable debate to be had over whether the U.S. president should agree to unconditional talks with, say, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. But by distorting Obama's stance beyond all recognition and using the charged context of the Knesset--along with a handful of inappropriate historical allusions*--to not-so-subtly raise further doubtsabout the Democratic candidate with Jewish Americans, Bush indicated that he's less interested in highlighting foreign-policy differences than in fear-mongering for political gain.

The point, it seems, was to boost John McCain. Unfortunately for Bush--and the GOP--the assault has proven to be pretty foolish politics. Like children with Christmas presents, the entire Democratic establishment immediately ripped into the president for his remarks. "It is sad that President Bush would use a speech to the Knesset on the 60th anniversary of Israel's independence to launch a false political attack," said Obama in a statement. "It is time to turn the page on eight years of policies that have strengthened Iran and failed to secure America or our ally Israel." Obama communications director Robert Gibbs called Bush's swipe an “astonishing” show of "cowboy diplomacy" and an “unprecedented political attack on foreign soil.” "Beneath the dignity of the office," said Nancy Pelosi; "Does the president have no shame?" asked Rahm Emanuel. DNC Chairman Howard Dean demanded that McCain "denounce these remarks in the strongest terms possible.” And Joe Biden summed up the situation in typically Bidenesque terms. "This is bulls**t," he said in a Senate hallway. "This is malarkey."

Whether or not Dubya's history lesson was, indeed, "malarkey," the Dems are smart to treat it like a big, shiny gift from Santa Claus. As the New Republic's Christopher Orr puts it, "Bush attacking Obama, and Obama counter-attacking Bush, while John McCain sits on the sidelines, is a disastrous dynamic for the GOP. The more Obama can frame this race as him vs. the most unpopular president in modern history, the easier a time he'll have in the fall." Before, Obama had to tie McCain to Bush to accomplish this task--and it was often a stretch, seeing as the Arizona senator has broken with the administration on issues like global warming and even Iraq strategy. But now that Bush has entered the ring himself, Obama can finally fight the opponent he's been itching to fight all along.

McCain, for his part, is left in an awkward position. After Bush's Knesset kvetching caught fire this morning in Washington, D.C., White House spokeswoman Dana Perino contradicted what aides had already told CNN and insisted that her boss wasn't referring to Obama. "There are many who have suggested these types of negotiations with people that the president, President Bush, thinks that we should not talk to," she informed reporters in Jerusalem. With that in mind, then, there are only two explanations for Bush's "who, me?" defense, and both align with the worst criticisms of his character: either he's too dumb to realize that the entire world would hear his comments as a swipe at Obama--highly unlikely--or he's being disingenuous. Hours later in Columbus, Ohio, McCain told the pressthat "he took the White House at its word"--a diplomatic response--and then pivoted to hit Obama himself. "This does bring up an issue that we will be discussing with the American people," he said, "and that is why does Barack Obama, Senator Obama, want to sit down with a state sponsor of terrorism?" Unlike Bush, McCain was honestly characterizing Obama's position and indicating an interest in substantive debate. But don't expect Biden, Pelosi, Dean, Emanuel--or Obama--to make that distinction for him in the fall. They'll simply say he embraced the radioactive president--implying that he must be either dumb or disingenuous himself.

In other words, "more of the same."

UPDATE, 5:17 p.m.:  Another negative effect on McCain: Bush's remarks stepped all over his major speech this morning, which "was billed by his campaign as one of his most important to date and a summary of sorts of the past two months of policy addresses and promises." Although the McCain camp probably doesn't mind Bush putting Obama on the defensive re: a touchy subject like Israel, that benefit doesn't outweigh the costs of 1) having the day's message, which was geared toward independents, completely drowned out and 2) being forced instead to play sidekick to the most unpopular president in modern history--a sure turn-off for the very independents that McCain was supposed to spend the day courting.

* UPDATE, 5:34 p.m.: Why is the Nazi comparison inappropriate in this context? Blogger Matt Eckel of Foreign Policy Watch sums it up nicely:

Any benefits of Munich as an instructive historical precedent are now far outweighed by the analogy's power as an intellectually lazy rhetorical cudgel that is too often used to bludgeon any diplomatic initiatives that are, well, diplomatic. Not every autocratic country is Nazi Germany. Not every foreign dictator we don't like is Hitler. Not every threatening situation is most appropriately handled by eschewing diplomacy in favor of a "firm stance." ... Iran is not Nazi Germany. Though the Iranian regime is anti-democratic, and espouses values that are indeed antithetical to those of the liberal West, the notion that Iranian armies and proxies are poised to make a genocidal sweep across the Middle East is absurd. Even the Iranian nuclear threat, though serious, shows every sign of being able to be contained with an intelligent deterrence policy (should things come to that). Iran does not have a particularly impressive industrial base. Its infrastructure is mediocre, its economy is sclerotic (propped up only by high oil prices), and its regime is unpopular. Even the outrageous statements about Israel made by President Ahmadinejad should be taken with a grain of salt, remembering that the Iranian President is not the head of state, and that he is acutally at odds with much of Iran's clerical leaders.

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