Here's a provocative point from Sidney Blumenthal:

Sidney Blumenthal, a former senior adviser to President Bill Clinton and strategist for Hillary Clinton’s Democratic presidential campaign, went “off message” (his words) today with a warning to his party: Don’t run against GOP nominee John McCain by painting him as Bush III, because he’s not. Bucking the Democratic National Committee’s talking points that characterize a potential McCain administration as tantamount to a third Bush term, Blumenthal told our Liz Halloran that running on that strategy in the fall would be a mistake. “I understand people’s political reasons for doing that,” he said. “I think it’s more helpful to describe [political opponents] as they are.” Bottom line, Blumenthal calls the strategy “a mistake and adds: “The public doesn’t see [McCain] that way. That’s a hard sell.”

I'll just note that I think it would be silly to base a campaign strategy on how the public currently views John McCain (the point of the swift-boat attacks, for example, was to change perceptions of John Kerry) and then say it's probably best to bracket the question of campaign strategy and just ask straight-up how different Bush and McCain are:

  • In foreign policy, I think you'd see substantial Bush-McCain continuity since McCain pioneered a lot of Bushist ideas and I would suspect that any change would probably be for the worse as McCain seems to agree with the Bush administration's very worst instincts on North Korea and Russia.
  • On detainee treatment and torture, McCain's been pretty weasely, but you could say the same for various Democrats and he'd clearly be a change of some sort.
  • On climate, McCain is clearly better than Bush and clearly worse than Obama and the leading progressives in congress.
  • Whether you like Bush's education policy record or not, that's clearly an issue he's identified himself with over the years and taken an interest in. McCain, by contrast, literally can't be bothered to offer an education policy, though he says he'll do so at some point.
  • By contrast, McCain's domestic passion is anti-pork crusading, something he's stuck with through thick and thin and that Bush has never cared about at all.
  • On immigration, they're identical business-oriented cheap labor Republicans willing to try to cut a deal with liberal groups.
  • On taxes, they once had different ideas, but McCain has made clear and unambiguous promises to continue Bush's tax policies.
  • On health care, they offer similar ideas about trying to get individuals to directly bear more of the costs of care in hopes that this will reduce costs overall down the road.
  • Temperamentally and personally they're quite different, but appear to share a fundamental lack of interest in policy issues.

These are real differences. You could imagine McCain becoming a much better president than Bush were he to lead the country down a path of carbon emissions reduction and set the stage for a world in which we avoid the worst consequences of climate change. You could also imagine McCain becoming a much worse president than Bush were he to neoconize our relationship with Russia and China. On domestic policy, one suspects that McCain would be more inclined than Bush to reach compromises with congressional Democrats, but he hasn't made any commitments in that regard, and his promises on the tax issue would make it impossible for him to govern as a moderate even if he were inclined to do so.

Basically, I think that despite their differences Bush really would end up substantially "McSame" as Bush unless you assume he's just lying about tax policy which would be a significant change in its own right and also open the door to more un-Bushian acts on other domestic policy issues. Perhaps that's right, certainly McCain does lie about a lot of stuff, so he might be lying about this. Then again, I think it's equally possible that his moderate take on taxes in 2001 was mostly a reflection of personal animus against Bush and he'll govern as a perfectly orthodox anti-tax Republican.