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The Devil You Know

By Russ Smith | Posted 5/10/2006

It’s one of life’s lucky breaks that my wife’s father is a heck of a guy. Spry and healthy at 67, Rudy has the energy of a much younger man, and when he’s not playing ball or watching South Park with our boys, we’ll spend hours chatting about sports, history, his Illinois roots, and the pros and cons of living in Los Angeles.

Rudy’s never voted for a Republican presidential candidate, just as I’ve veered away from Democrats since Jimmy Carter ran against Ronald Reagan in 1980. Therefore, it was somewhat of a surprise when my in-laws arrived from L.A. last week and immediately asked my opinion of immigration reform and the odds of Sen. John McCain winning the presidency two years from now.

The immigration question was easy, and we all agreed that the (mostly) Republican troglodytes braying for mass deportation are certifiable, while at the same time the vast amount of working illegals ought to pay a fine and take steps toward citizenship while remaining in the country. As Rudy noted, it’s a strange moment that all of us were in concert on a major political issue, and, as I pointed out, if George W. Bush, McCain, and Teddy Kennedy were also on the same side it’s proof of what a weird era we’re living in. Then Rudy admitted he’d strongly consider voting for McCain over Hillary Clinton in ’08.

Most reporters and pundits who write about the upcoming presidential race feel obliged to throw in a caveat that it’s still way too early to make predictions about the ’08 field, but then go ahead and handicap the dozen or so challengers for the two nominations. I think the midterm elections this November are a lot more hazy and unpredictable than what will almost certainly be, barring some scandal or health concern, a McCain-Clinton presidential match. The two candidates have too much money and name recognition to be thwarted.

Over the years, I’ve criticized McCain on any number of fronts. His grandstanding for an adoring media, the abominable First Amendment-busting support for campaign finance “reform,” and opposition early in Bush’s first term for necessary tax cuts are just a few prominent examples. I do give McCain credit for so masterfully hoodwinking reporters with his “straight talk” that they ignored his use of corporate jets while ranting about the evil of big money in politics.

Nevertheless, there’s no question that if, as currently expected, McCain wins the GOP nomination I’ll support the on-again, off-again “maverick.” If you’re a conservative who fears another Clinton regime, what choice is there? Mitt Romney, the Massachusetts governor who’s flirting with Clinton-esque universal health care? George Allen, the Virginia senator who’d almost certainly lose Florida and Ohio to New York’s junior senator? I don’t think so.

The same “boys on the bus” who dutifully recorded every word the Arizona senator uttered during his bitter 2000 primary campaign against Bush warn that McCain is no sure bet, given the antipathy he caused six years ago with cultural conservatives. Wishful thinking. McCain is nothing if not a chameleon: With a straight face he can appear with Teddy Kennedy at a press conference about the U.S. military’s alleged torture in Iraq and then two hours later reiterate his support for this year’s Arizona initiative to ban gay marriage. He’s hired Bush fundraisers, is campaigning across the country for fellow Republicans, supports the administration’s controversial foreign policy—although he advocates for the firing of Donald Rumsfeld—and is a born-again tax-cutter. Oh, and he’s more vocal about his anti-abortion views.

Incredibly, there are still Democratic members of McCain’s Beltway fan clubs who insist that his tack to the right is just necessary political strategy. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius, who supported Al Gore and John Kerry against Bush, wrote a glowing May 3 column, “A Man Who Won’t Sell His Soul,” about McCain that defied belief. Ignatius said: “‘I don’t want [the GOP nomination] that badly,’ McCain says. ‘I will continue to do what is right. I will continue to pursue torture, climate change. If that means I can’t get the Republican nomination, fine. I’ve had a happy life. The worst thing I can do is sell my soul to the devil.’” Ignatius concludes, while acknowledging the senator’s “balancing act” on contentious issues, “A McCain candidacy . . . will be rooted in his image as a man of principle.”

That’s rich. How does Ignatius square the fact that McCain has mended fences with Democratic bogeyman Jerry Falwell, the admittedly oily televangelist whom the senator’s once described as “an agent of intolerance”?

I don’t know what “devil” McCain won’t sell his soul to, but it’s certainly not the Republican money machine, which is now working overtime and enthusiastically to make sure he’s the nominee in 2008. McCain wants to be president, badly; the Republicans want to keep the White House, badly; and the American public is likely ready to comply.

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