By Lauren Harris–‘Maverick, No More’: McCain’s Struggle to Rise above Bush’s Unpopular Legacy
The 2008 presidential election was an especially difficult time for the Republican Party. The party’s candidate, Arizona Senator John McCain, not only had to contend with his Democratic opponent but also with the public’s general disillusion with the George W. Bush presidency. The political cartoon, “Maverick No More,” epitomizes McCain’s struggle during the 2008 election. The cartoon was created by Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist Ben Sargent, who retired in 2009.
George W. Bush was known somewhat as a southern cowboy, who lived on a large ranch in Texas when not at the White House. In the cartoon, Bush is seen branding a large “W” into a steer that has the face of McCain. In the corner of the cartoon is the title, “Maverick No More,” which refers to McCain’s nickname as “The Maverick.” This branding is symbolic for the significant impact the Bush administration had on the McCain campaign in 2008 and the difficulty McCain had with differentiating himself from the unpopular president.
Despite having the highest approval rating of any president after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Bush left office in January 2009 with one of the lowest approval ratings in history (22%). After it came to light that the government presented evidence of Weapons of Mass Destruction (which ultimately led to the United States’ involvement in Iraq) as more concrete than it actually was, both conflicts in the Middle East, as well as the president, became increasingly unpopular with the American public. Also, the U.S. economy took a major hit leading up to the 2008 presidential election, which also contributed to Bush’s abysmal approval ratings. After two unpopular wars and a tanking economy, the American people were dissatisfied with the president and the Republican Party he represented.
McCain desperately needed to separate himself from the unpopular Bush administration. However, while McCain urged that he disapproved of Bush’s management of the Iraq war, news organizations reported that McCain and Bush remained very similar in their views about the economy and the continuation of the Iraq war. These issues were two of the most important in the 2008 election and McCain struggled to separate himself from Bush while still remaining loyal to his conservative ideals.
While McCain attempted to demonstrate to the American people that he was different from fellow Republican Bush, Obama incorporated this dissatisfaction into his campaign slogan.
Despite McCain’s attempts to differentiate himself from Bush, Americans continued to see the Republicans as too similar for their liking. In June 2008, respondents to a USA Today/Gallup poll confirmed that McCain was in trouble: 49 percent of respondents claimed they were very concerned that McCain would pursue policies similar to the one’s Bush pursued and another 19 percent were somewhat concerned. Obama referred to these concerns often in his campaign discourse. McCain was dubbed “McBush,” past policies were referred to as “Bush-McCain policies” and Obama’s campaign often stated that a vote for McCain was a vote for a third Bush term. These statements reinforced the public’s fears that McCain and the very unpopular Bush were much more alike than the McCain team wanted to admit.
McCain countered these attacks by focusing on Obama’s lack of political experience, claiming that “the American people didn’t get to know me yesterday, as they are just getting to know Senator Obama.” However, America’s dissatisfaction with the Republican Party ran too deep. In November 2008, Americans voted for the candidate who ran on “change” rather than the Republican candidate that reminded them all too well of the preceding president.
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