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McCain, Bush Turn to Insiders

By David Shribman

Eight years ago, when he was preparing his presidential campaign for the year 2000, George W. Bush, governor of Texas and skeptic of all things Washington, positioned himself as an outsider, despite having a presidential father and a senatorial grandfather. So did Sen. John S. McCain III, who ran as an outsider despite being from a family that was an aristocracy of admirals and having a resume that included time in the House and Senate.

This month, in the last quarter of his tenure as president, Mr. Bush took Edward G. Gillespie, corporate lobbyist and capital denizen, into the White House to join Fred F. Fielding, the new White House counsel whose credits include being deputy to John Dean in the Nixon administration and a star turn as a suspect for being Deep Throat in Watergate.

Meanwhile, Mr. McCain has assembled a campaign staff that includes eight key onetime Bush aides, including a good deal of the president's media team. Mr. Bush's national political director, Terry Nelson, is Mr. McCain's campaign manager. Mr. Bush's high-profile fundraiser, Tom Leoffler, is Mr. McCain's national fundraising chairman.

These new roles for Mr. Bush and Mr. McCain -- outsiders turned insiders -- stand as symbols of the new roles they are playing in American politics. This role-over reflects the changed positions both have as the 2008 election approaches.

Like many presidents nearing the end of their second terms, Mr. Bush has exhausted his pool of top recruits; the appointments Bill Clinton made in 1998 and 1999 reflected the same phenomenon. Like many presidents who encounter heavy weather in Washington, he is reaching out to insiders wise in the ways of the capital; Mr. Bush's overtures to Mr. Fielding and Mr. Gillespie are much like Mr. Clinton's overtures to David Gergen, a Republican fixture until his gavotte with the Clintons.

The irony of the changed roles Mr. Bush and Mr. McCain are playing is that they reflect weakness and not strength. And the double irony is that they serve to tie the two men, once bitter rivals with sharply different outlooks, ever closer together -- a development that could have devastating consequences for both.

For both men, the terrible ifs accumulate. If the war worsens, as it very well may, Mr. McCain's presidential campaign, so tied to the Bush administration's Iraq policy, will suffer. If Mr. McCain suffers serious losses in the early political states or, worse yet, withdraws from the campaign before the Iowa caucuses, then Mr. Bush will read 10,000 stories about how his own party has repudiated his war policy.

Mr. McCain has spent his life in one prison or another, real or metaphorical. It is almost vulgar to compare his difficulty now with the unbearable horror that he experienced in North Vietnam during more than five years of cruel imprisonment. But Mr. McCain is in a sense a prisoner of Mr. Bush's Iraq policy. If it succeeds, Mr. McCain could succeed. If it fails, Mr. McCain is doomed.

How Mr. McCain became Mr. Insider is one of the curiosities of modern political life -- and, depending on how it turns out, perhaps one of the great tragedies of modern political life. In 2000, he ran against the big experts and the big shots and the big stuffed shirts. In 2007, he is their captive, especially of the stuffed shirts tucked into military trousers.

All this occurs as another outsider-turned-insider now repositions himself as an outsider. That would be Newt Gingrich, onetime speaker of the House, now the self-appointed clear-eyed visionary of the far horizon. Mr. Gingrich once controlled everything that occurred within the House chamber, which is not exactly an outsider's occupation.

No matter. Because Mr. Gingrich -- master of the theoretical if not always the practical and a presidential candidate though not yet proclaimed as one -- sees a way to run as a Republican but against the president. He sees it, oddly enough, in France, which hasn't been the Republicans' favorite country for as long as there has been a Republican Party. (France's assistance to the American revolutionary fighters came well before the party was founded.)

"In France," he wrote this month in the Financial Times, "voting for change meant voting for the party in office but not the personality in office." He added: "The parallels between the incumbent French government of President Jacques Chirac and that of President George W. Bush were hard to miss."

The formula Mr. Gingrich sets out is simple. Be an outsider in the party of the current insiders. That has its difficulties, too; people have tried that before, often without success. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy did it in 1968. Al Gore tried it in 2000, and though he won the popular vote it wasn't by a big margin and didn't bring him the presidency.

Mr. McCain may have weighed the historical precedents and misapplied their lessons. He obviously calculated that he had to be the establishment candidate in 2008. He knew he didn't have to be anointed by the establishment; he thought he only had to be broadly acceptable to the establishment. He didn't count on the public abandoning Mr. Bush, and he didn't count on the GOP base dwindling as a result.

Mr. McCain is a natural insurgent, which is the role he played in 2000, and he is an uncomfortable incumbent, which is the role he is playing in the 2008 race, although he is doing so without the sizable advantages of incumbency. He is happier as an outsider, as a happy warrior of the GOP. There may be one lesson Mr. McCain did not learn. It is that unhappy candidates and unhappy warriors almost always have unhappy endings.


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