The cancellation of the first night of the Republican National Convention marks the renewal of the rivalry between George W. Bush and John McCain. Since their bitter contest over the Republican nomination in 2000, they have taken years to make peace. But now McCain's last chance has collided with Bush's legacy.
Hurricane Gustav was "a big blessing," according to a source close to the McCain campaign. Facing a Katrina level wipeout--the landfall in St. Paul of both President Bush and Vice President Cheney--McCain felt trapped. How could he prevent the President and Vice President from appearing at the convention? Only an act of God could intervene. Suddenly, a hurricane whipped up in the Gulf and looked headed for New Orleans. Like a divinely inspired miracle, a storm to blow away Bush and Cheney had been conjured.
The McCain campaign and the Bush White House negotiated terms that unfolded as a script over the past several days, several sources told me. First, Bush announced he must oversee the preparations for dealing with the hurricane. He would not be able to attend the convention. Cheney, too, would drop out. In order that Bush and Cheney not seem to have been humiliated, McCain cancelled the entire proceedings for the first evening.
Almost certainly, Bush had to cancel his planned speech while Gustav loomed. But the sources say he didn't like the idea and felt pushed. Bush is described by sources as "furious" at McCain for being deprived of his last appearance before his party, which nominated him twice, as a sitting president. He believes he is being treated disrespectfully.
Shuttering the convention for a night was probably inevitable given the hurricane, but to provide a cover-up for scratching Bush and Cheney it became absolutely necessary. But once the hurricane passed, Bush asserted his primacy as president and forced his way back on the schedule to deliver a satellite speech to the convention.
McCain is desperately seeking ways to pivot from Bush, whose in-person appearance on the first night of the convention threatened to obliterate his message as a "maverick" and "reformer." Even though McCain himself would not be onstage, Bush and Cheney would have dominated the opening and underlined continuity between their administration and McCain. The cancellation of the first night of the convention is a small price to pay for their absence.
McCain's campaign is perfectly aware of the mortal danger of Bush's embrace. He has needed the president to rally the Republican base. But once he has the nomination his imperative is to project himself as an antidote to what has gone wrong with Republicanism.
McCain's political quandary is paradoxical. Bush has broken all parts of the Republican Party, as I document in my book, The Strange Death of Republican America. McCain's emergence as the party's nominee has been made possible by its crackup, which he must transcend. The primary field fractured the conservatives, none of whom were able to isolate the others and unite the whole movement. None could do what Bush achieved in 2000, running at the same time as the candidate of the party establishment and the conservative movement. McCain historically has represented neither.
McCain's selection of Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska reflected his impulse to reject Bush. As I explained in a previous article in the Huffington Post, he really wanted to name Senator Joe Lieberman as his running mate, but that option was a political impossibility that would have provoked an open revolt at the convention. Karl Rove tried to manipulate McCain into choosing Mitt Romney, endorsed by almost all members of the Bush family (except the president who had to remain above the fray). Rove organized a campaign against Lieberman and other potential choices. There could be little doubt that Rove was doing Bush's bidding. But McCain, resentful of Rove's maneuvering, outflanked him with Palin.
Bush is said to be dismissive of McCain's pick of Palin, according to the sources. Ironically, he is said to believe that now he will bear no responsibility if McCain loses. The old rivalry, supposedly buried, has come back to life.