McCain’s Delicate Dance

Sep 2, 2008 3:21pm

George W. Bush’s virtual appearance at the Republican National Convention tonight underscores a prime challenge for John McCain: to weave a safe path between Republicans who still approve of the president and the big majority of Americans who don’t.

Bush’s unpopularity is approaching a thing of legend. Anywhere from 62 to 69 percent of Americans have disapproved of his job performance for 20 months straight. He hasn’t received majority approval in any of our polls since January 2005 – 43 months ago. Both are unsurpassed in presidential approval polling since its start 70 years ago.

The president’s problem is McCain’s in this sense: Fifty-seven percent of registered voters in our pre-convention poll said they thought McCain would lead the country in the same direction as Bush. That is hardly a popular thought, since currently just 30 percent of adults approve of Bush’s job performance, while 66 percent disapprove. (And “strong” disapprovers outnumber strong approvers by 4-1.)

The answer for McCain is to steer away – as, among other things, with his surprise v.p. pick, Sarah Palin, whose office is 3,344 highway miles from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The task is to do so subtly: In our latest ABC/Post poll, 60 percent of Republicans continued to approve of Bush’s job performance, even while just 31 percent of independents and 11 percent of Democrats agreed. Granted, that’s Bush’s worst among Republicans on record. But it’s still majority approval in his – and McCain’s – home party.

The road for McCain is equally tricky on one of the proximate causes of Bush’s troubles, the war in Iraq. Sixty-three percent of Americans say it was not worth fighting, and this has been a majority for more than three and a half years. But, as with Bush approval, Republicans again differ: Sixty-three percent of Republicans say the war was worth it. (Just 35 percent of independents and 17 percent of Democrats agree.) McCain’s best approach, in terms of appealing to the center, may be not to argue that the war was a good idea, but that he’s better qualified to see it through.

Then there’s the sticky business of the economy, the other chief cause of the president’s unpopularity. Bush suggested in his weekly radio address Saturday that it’s on the mend (“There have been some recent signs that our economy is beginning to improve"), citing growth in second-quarter GDP.

Danger. I reported last week on why GDP is probably not a good yardstick in this case. The political reality is that consumer confidence is near its record low, and nearly eight in 10 Americans say the country’s seriously off on the wrong track – including 55 percent of Republicans, growing to 80 percent of independents and 92 percent of Democrats.

Promoting improved GDP is precisely the trap into which Bush’s father so neatly fell 16 years ago. Rather than seconding Bush’s suggestion that it’s improving, McCain might do better by trying to chip away at Barack Obama’s 11-point lead in trust to handle it.

Beyond this dance, something else on display at the Republican convention this week will be the fundamental differences between the parties – in how they think, and even in how they look. In this year’s primaries, African-Americans accounted for just 2 percent of Republican voters, vs. 19 percent (about their usual share) of Democrats. Women accounted for 47 percent of Republican voters, vs. 57 percent in Democratic primaries. Half as many Hispanics voted in GOP primaries (6 percent) as in Democratic primaries (12 percent). Given all these, white men accounted for 48 percent of Republican primary voters, compared with just 28 percent of Democrats.

Then there’s basic political philosophy. In this year’s primaries 63 percent of Republican voters identified themselves as conservatives, vs. just 13 percent of Democrats. (Forty-seven percent of Democrats said they were liberals, compared with 9 percent of GOP voters.) If, comparing this week to last, Republicans and Democrats seem different – well, on many measures, they are.

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