When he returns to Texas, George W. Bush will have plenty of time to think back on why on earth he let his Justice Department turn into a playground for partisans, ridiculing his pledge to run an administration free of Clinton-style politics. John McCain already has started running away from that shameful part of the Bush legacy, just as the presumptive GOP nominee backpedaled away from the $480 billion deficit Bush faces on the last months of his watch.
At less than a 30 percent approval rating, Bush doesn't offer much to a potential Republican successor. But the Bush legacy is more complicated than meets the eye. McCain should think about picking up on parts that get little media attention but have important consequences.
Believe it or not, some of the president's policies could help McCain.
Fighting AIDS in Africa
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A good example is the legislation Bush signed last week, extending for five years an unprecedented U.S. commitment to fighting disease in underdeveloped parts of the world. In 2003, Bush started the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief to combat the rise of AIDS worldwide, especially in Africa.
Over its first five years, the legislation got drugs to 1.5 million people in mostly sub-Saharan Africa. An additional 6.6 million people received other care from the $19 billion Congress appropriated.
Now comes Stage II. The bipartisan bill Bush signed authorizes $48 billion more in fighting not only HIV/AIDS but also tuberculosis and malaria.
Think of the human impact. This will help ensure that AIDS won't automatically consign people in nations like Uganda and South Africa to death. And some Africans will grow up with a different image of America than they otherwise might, thanks to the care they're receiving through this program.
From McCain's perspective, championing and building on this initiative could help in several ways.
First, numerous evangelicals also are interested in developing Africa. World Vision International has been there for years; more recently, pastors like Rick Warren and Franklin Graham have made Africa their cause.
Writing in his book, “Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite,” Rice University professor Michael Lindsay describes Warren's plan to get churches around the world to “nurse, feed and educate the poor.” Warren's goal, he claims, “is to make Africa more entrepreneurial and self-sustaining.”
McCain has struggled among evangelical voters. He could use this issue to build a bridge to what has been an important part of the GOP base.
Emphasize ‘soft power'
Second, McCain could soften his image of being a big-stick guy. He's right that we can't just walk away from Iraq, but his obsession with staying the course there makes him sound like a Barry Goldwater-warrior-clone from Arizona. By emphasizing soft power in Africa, McCain can show that he will be more like Teddy Roosevelt, who artfully combined diplomacy with power.
Third, McCain could show the GOP's compassionate side to gay and lesbian voters. One of the first press releases I received about Bush signing the AIDS legislation was from the AIDS Project of Los Angeles. It praised the president's emergency plan for emphasizing ways to help men avoid the virus when having sex with other men.
This is where good policy can make good politics – and part of the Bush legacy that can help McCain. Given the rough weeks he's been having defining rival Barack Obama, it might be worth championing a human cause as part of a different strategy.