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The Race Is On

By Russ Smith | Posted 6/1/2005

There’s not much that can surprise me today when discussing local or national politics, but on the evening of May 25, at the Gilman School’s baseball fields, I found myself uncharacteristically at a loss for words.

While the kids were taking batting practice, a friend and I rehashed the judicial filibuster compromise in the U.S. Senate. It was hardly a shock that this fellow, a centrist Democrat, was relieved at the deal struck by 14 senators. I thought the entire controversy was politics as usual, an opportunity for politicians on both sides to mug for the cameras and sanctimoniously refer to the Founding Fathers, when the reality is that this particular carnival will return to Washington upon the occasion of a Supreme Court vacancy. I’d have preferred a clear GOP victory, but it wasn’t the end of the world.

My buddy wasn’t so cavalier. “I was on pins and needles last weekend,” he said, chilled by the sight of party leaders Bill Frist and Harry Reid crossing swords on the TV talk shows. “It hasn’t been since the Cuban Missile Crisis that I’ve been so worried about the fate of the country.” It doesn’t make much sense to engage in vigorous debate with the father of your own son’s friend and teammate, so I mentally regrouped, ignoring the lunacy of comparing a Congressional procedural fight with potential nuclear war, and brought up the ramifications for the 2008 election.

The hard-core bases of both parties have magnified the impact of the temporary Senate truce, with the religious right and virulently anti-Bush left apoplectic, both insisting they were betrayed, while the media toasted the beauty of bipartisanship. The Sun’s May 25 editorial (“A chance to start over”) was typical of many daily newspapers last week. Proving that hyperbole is not a lost art, the writer began, “It wasn’t exactly on a par with the American Revolution, but the nation nonetheless owes a debt of gratitude to the centrist militia that rode to the rescue Monday and fended off a grave threat to federal checks and balances.”

What nonsense. The significance of last week’s “showdown” was that it officially began the race among Republicans for the 2008 presidential nomination. (On the Democratic side, Sen. Hillary Clinton is the de facto front-runner and had no need to play a prominent role in the “nuclear option” fight.)

I don’t think there’s any doubt that Sen. John McCain was by far the biggest beneficiary among the numerous potential candidates to succeed George W. Bush. McCain, who relishes the media spotlight probably more than any politician in America, downplayed his White House lust after the agreement was reached, disingenuously telling The Hill, a Washington political newspaper, “I wouldn’t have come out against the nuclear option if my presidential ambition were playing a role in this . . . I knew it would hurt me. I’m not dumb.”

The consensus among political handicappers is that while the “maverick” McCain is popular among nondoctrinaire Republicans, independents, and a sizable number of Democrats, he won’t be able to survive the 2008 primaries because of right-wing ideologues who are the most committed Republican voters. That’s an outdated analysis, I believe, relying too heavily on the Arizona senator’s defeat by Bush five years ago. Social conservatives will have a number of candidates to choose from in the early going—senators Frist, George Allen, Sam Brownback, and Rick Santorum, for example—and so the vote will be split. In addition, McCain’s 2008 campaign will be extravagantly funded (in contrast to 2000, when his strength was propped by worshipful media profiles rather than dollars), and his name recognition exceeds that of any potential rivals.

Also, despite McCain’s coziness with certain Democrats in opposing certain Bush initiatives, the senator campaigned tirelessly for Bush last year, is pro-life, and is an unapologetic supporter of the president’s foreign policy. McCain has also mended fences with Bush strategist Karl Rove, the one man who’ll have the most under-the-radar influence in GOP grass-roots voter drives, procurement of endorsements, and fundraising. McCain is certainly not Bush or Rove’s first choice for a successor, but they’re practical men who desire above all a continuation of Republican power in Washington. If the prospective Democratic candidate is Clinton, does anyone really think that GOP powerbrokers will entrust the nomination to a religious extremist like Brownback or the listless Frist?

McCain all but declared his candidacy in a fawning profile of him by the New Yorker’s Connie Bruck in the May 30 issue. Asked by the author if he was “well-suited” to lead the country, McCain responded that yes, with the country engaged in a terrorism war that shows no sign of abating, he has “the qualifications to address what is now the transcendent issue of our time.” Former Sen. Bob Kerrey added: “He’s got to be the one person the Democrats least want as [the nominee]. I’m a Democrat, of course—but he causes people like me to think twice.”

I don’t care for McCain much, but faced with the possibility of Clinton back in the White House, there’s simply no contest.

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