03/14/2008 09:06 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Bush Effect

A new NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll has some surprising numbers about the Republican Party, some of which have been described by other commentators as paradoxical. President Bush's approval numbers continue to remain in the low 30s, while 49% view the Republican Party unfavorably. A whopping 43% believe they are worse off than they were four years ago, a truly shocking number when one considers how utterly bleak the state of the nation was four years ago. 76% of voters want the next president to pursue an approach other than that of President Bush, and in a generic match-up, the Democratic nominee beats the Republican nominee in a thirteen point landslide.

Yet when John McCain is paired against Hillary Clinton, he only loses by two points, and when pitted against Obama, he only loses by three. If voters are fed up with the Republican Party and George W. Bush, and if they are eager for a Democrat to take over, why is John McCain's margin so close?

One possible argument, of course, is that McCain is actually the most electable Republican in his party. It may be, as many have suggested, that for all of the problems Republicans faced during their nomination fight, they may have serendipitously nominated their strongest possible candidate. But on closer inspection, these numbers help underscore the potential for a significant collapse in McCain's support come November.

The American people have yet to associate John McCain with George W. Bush. If they thought the two were one in the same, McCain's support would undoubtedly plummet. But John McCain has cultivated a narrative that paints him as a maverick, a politician willing to disagree with the president when required. Combined with the well-documented discomfort the two have felt for each other since their 2000 campaign, McCain has, at least to some extent, a credible rationale for pointing out differences.

Voters have also apparently disassociated McCain from the Republican Party. Despite his otherwise conservative record, McCain has confronted his own party on issues from earmarks to immigration - a reality only further validated by the right's obvious discomfort with their nominee. In fact, the media portrayal of McCain as an anti-Republican has been so universal that 44% of Democrats view him favorably, while 52% of Republicans would have preferred another nominee.

In the interim, that might sound like encouraging news to the McCain campaign. But underneath the numbers, the true weakness of the McCain candidacy comes to light. After all, McCain has yet to experience the financial arm of the Obama campaign in full force, using every opportunity to paint a McCain presidency as nothing more than a third Bush term. Already, Obama previews the campaign to come with his stump speech, arguing that, though Bush will not be on the November ballot, his policies certainly will.

It is also nearly impossible that McCain will spend nine months as the leader of his party without being painted as a serious member. Having done such a poor job of unifying his base during the primary season, McCain is already finding himself fighting a two-front war, forced to advocate pet Republican policies at a volume too loud for the general election. The more he swears to be a genuine Republican, the more the voters will begin to believe him.

The space McCain has placed between himself, his party, and the president will never appear quite as distant as it does today. On the other side of a billion dollar general election, voters will no doubt view him as a conservative Republican, closely aligned with Bush's policies and ideology.

With 76% of the voters hoping for a president who takes a different approach than Bush, that reality should give John McCain some serious pause.