It always is difficult to handicap the next Presidential election before the mid-term elections. So I will not go through the litany of the half dozen Democrats, including Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who may contest for the nomination. The views range from Hillary has got it in the bag to Hillary won’t run.
Democratic Party sentiment is said to range from ready for another Clinton Era to fear of another Clinton Era; from the Party wants a familiar face (Hillary) to the Party seeks a totally new face (former Governor Mark R. Warner of Virginia). Hillary is a polarizing figure, no doubt. In the end, however, the nomination seems almost certain to be hers if she pursues it. If she is the nominee Republicans either are scared to death of her and don’t know to how to run against her or they can’t wait for the chance to take her on, pointing to the considerable political baggage she has inherited. One clearly hears both views.
On the Republican side there are no less than thirteen candidates who think they have a chance. These include sitting and retiring Governors, sitting and retiring Senators and maybe even a General. The Democrats have a General, too. He is Wesley Clark but he went nowhere in 2004. Some of these candidates, such as Governor Michael Huckabee, of Hope, Arkansas, in fact may be running for Vice President without saying so. In fact, I only recall one candidate who openly ran and campaigned for the Vice Presidency. He was an obscure Alaska Democratic Senator who got absolutely nowhere with his effort to win the Vice Presidency.
While Democrats have an obvious frontrunner with Hillary Republicans have none. Florida Governor Jeb Bush would be the front runner if he had not all but absolutely ruled out running. No Senator or Governor is a hot ticket right now, except for one, John S. McCain, III. McCain is consolidating his position in a way reminiscent of Richard M. Nixon in 1968. He is collecting due bills. He campaigned for all sorts of Congressmen and Senators in 2002 and 2004. He is letting them know that now is the time to express their gratitude. Dick Morris, Bill Clinton’s strategist, who is pushing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for President, had an on-the-air colloquy with Sean Hannity the other day, which most of the audience didn’t understand. Morris was telling Hannity that he knew of a certain Senator who was very close to endorsing McCain. Hannity asked Morris if it was the Senator he had in mind. Morris said it was. Hannity said he didn’t believe it.
The colloquy was about former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS). Lott, who is a values- oriented conservative, is about ready to support McCain as the one Senator who can defeat Hillary in the South. He is not sure any other candidates can do so. Some of that may be personal. Senator Lott was ousted as Majority Leader by Senator William H. (“Bill”) Frist, M.D. (R-TN) after the media blew way out of proportion a silly remark Lott made about Senator Strom Thurmond on the occasion of Thurmond’s 100th birthday party. Senator George Allen (R-VA) also was involved in the coup, which could be why Lott finds neither Frist nor Allen viable in the South. Whatever the reason, friends of Lott from the South say he is determined to support a candidate who can defeat Hillary in that region of the country. McCain is saleable, Lott is telling friends.
When he was in the Senate Coats was especially close to the Religious Right. One of his longtime staffers is Timothy Goeglein, a key White House operative. Coats was thought to be supporting Senator Sam D. Brownback (R-KS), the only overtly Religious Right candidate of the lot. That McCain may well pick up Coats is a measure of how far McCain has come.
McCain is seen as the one Republican candidate who scores well with independents and Democrats. He is a darling of the media. Instead of the usual hostility a Republican gets from the media, he is seen as someone who would play ball with the old media and thus could be elected. McCain has kept his Right-to-Life credentials for the most part. He has been loyal to the President regarding the Iraqi War for the most part.
With Hillary looming large in the background and with almost any Democrat seen as capable of defeating any Republican, McCain in typical conservative Republican circles is seen as the savior of the GOP.
That is a long way for McCain to have come since the bitter primary with President George W. Bush in 2000. He patched things up with Bush and campaigned for him in the autumn of 2000. But it was never a happy relationship. Bush and McCain have tangled over a whole raft of issues, ranging from spending (McCain is a sort of deficit hawk) to the conduct of the Iraqi War, but these disputes have been more intense behind the scenes than seen in public.
McCain does not believe that the Republican Party should be advocating traditional moral values. He hopes to so co-opt mainline conservatism, while also gaining acceptance from liberals in the Party, such as former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, New York Governor George E. Pataki and former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, that he can afford to lose the Religious Right. Besides, the McCain camp reasons that if Hillary is indeed the Democratic nominee social conservatives would be so alarmed about her becoming President that they likely would vote for McCain anyway.
It is a bold strategy, yet given the fact that the values voters do not have a candidate around whom they have thus far rallied, McCain’s view of the world may indeed prevail. Social conservatives presently enjoy unprecedented influence in the White House and most especially on Capitol Hill, where the leadership in both the House and the Senate is very sympathetic to them and their issues. A McCain Presidency likely would change all that.
Shortly before he died in 1998 and after he left the Senate in 1986, Barry M. Goldwater, the father of modern conservatism, denounced social conservatives, saying they had no business trying, as he put it, to make the Republican Party into a church. McCain took the Goldwater seat. He is out of the same mold. Goldwater all but broke with his party, mainly over moral issues. Perhaps at last, through John McCain, the party will be re-made in Goldwater’s image. It is happening and happening fast. McCain now holds all the cards.