McCain could have delivered Bush’s speech

In congressional and state legislative races where a seat is being vacated by a longtime incumbent, we often ask voters in polls whether they want their next representative to be much like the predecessor or whether they want a representative who’s different. I thought about this question watching President Bush give his State of the Union address Monday evening. I’m fairly comfortable projecting that most Democrats and a solid majority of independents would say they want someone very different. But what would Republicans say? That’s an important question as we head for Super Tuesday.

This query presents an artificial pollster-devised black-and-white choice with no in between, no gray. That gray area is where most Republicans would probably flee, if asked the question. They want Bush’s genuinely likeable personality without “the smirk.” They want his affinity for give-and-take politics without his persistent stubborn streaks.

Republicans long for the compassionate conservative while hoping for a more fiscally austere leader. But if given only a black-and-white choice, I suspect most Republicans would choose a new president who’s more like Bush than different.

So what do voters value and respect that Bush now offers in his final year of service to the nation? What about the candidates? Would the current Republicans front-runners — John McCain, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee — give that same speech that Bush delivered? Of the remaining field, it seems like McCain and Huckabee would come closest to adopting crucial parts of Bush’s agenda. And it seems that McCain’s overall political temperament is nearest to the incumbent’s.

Let’s start with Bush’s discussion of immigration. The president initially paid obeisance to the notion of “securing our borders,” then went ahead to advocate for a registered-worker program and even challenged the “rule of law” crowd by suggesting that America’s highest values and ideals might sometimes trump imperfect laws. It was a little bit McCain and a little bit Huckabee. Mitt Romney could not have spoken Bush’s boldest proclamations about immigration. He would have choked first. That’s why he’s seldom going to get a full majority of GOP voters in the primaries as long as there’s competition. Most Republicans agree with Bush. Meanwhile Romney panders too much to the minority. Study the polls and you’ll see it’s true.

Bush is not afraid of “red-meat issues.” But he knows when and where to invoke them. Most notably on Monday evening, he defiantly waded into the life and stem cell issues, almost gleefully reminding his audience that new developments have made it possible to extend “the frontiers of medicine without the destruction of human life.” In the text itself, it doesn’t look like much of a speech line, but in its delivery the phrase “destruction of human life” was a haymaker. In my view, it was the first line that energized the Republicans to a full, rising roar while Democrats glowered and hunkered down.

John McCain and Mike Huckabee are the candidates most likely to have made those same remarks in an address. Romney is hamstrung on the life issue because it reminds voters of his past inconsistencies. He’ll discuss these issues if provoked, but he doesn’t like to put this into the forefront.

On the two most-highlighted issues of the speech — war and the economic stimulus, including bipartisan cooperation on the latter — it seems that John McCain is the only candidate who could have clearly and convincingly mouthed George Bush’s remarks. Huckabee and Romney lack personal credibility on security matters. Romney has been so anxious to play up to hyper-partisan Republicans that he cannot speak of bipartisan efforts without looking like a flip-flopper yet again.

Wondering what a President John McCain’s State of the Union address might cover next January? Re-read last Monday’s speech.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.