Hairshirt McCain

Posted: Mar 15, 2004 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- In this winter of Republican discontent, the last thing the Grand Old Party needed last week was John McCain leaving the door open for him to be John Kerry's vice-presidential running mate on the Democratic ticket. That opening was tiny, and Sen. McCain quickly had it closed with a bang. Nevertheless, the incident was disturbing to knowledgeable Republicans for less than obvious reasons.

A Kerry-McCain ticket is out of the question, and nobody knows it better than McCain. Then why did he for several hours last Wednesday permit what the Associated Press described as "a glimmer of hope" for this unlikely combination? It reflects more than the senator's indisputable propensity for mischief-making. At a time when George W. Bush needs help and support, McCain is opposing him on a broad front of issues from tax cuts to global warming.

McCain, regarded as a nuisance by most of his Republican colleagues, in fact is the conscience of his party and the Bush administration on many questions. But he often seems more hairshirt than conscience, not hesitating to join hands with Democrats as a campaign of extraordinary partisan intensity begins. What happened last week sounded like McCain warning his intraparty adversary of 2000 that he really couldn't expect too much help from him.

McCain previously labeled as absurd interview questions about him going on the Democratic ticket, but something got into him when asked last Wednesday morning on ABC's "Good Morning America" whether he would consider becoming Kerry's running mate: "John Kerry is a close friend of mine. We have been friends for years. Obviously, I would entertain it." His quick admonition that the Democrats never would seek "a pro-life, free-trading, non-protectionist, deficit hawk" was ignored. McCain Chief of Staff Mark Salter had to be trotted out hours later to make clear that his boss was not running for vice president.

Salter could not undo all the damage. At the moment that Republican strategists are intent on unveiling Kerry to voters as the most liberal member of the Senate, the immensely popular McCain says the prospective Democratic nominee is OK. The tough 2000 primary campaign waged against McCain is cited in the Democratic mantra protesting all criticism of Kerry. McCain's refusal to talk about Kerry's long voting record against defense and intelligence spending gives aid and comfort to the political enemy.

McCain is nothing like Sen. Jim Jeffords, who long had been an apostate before leaving the party three years ago. McCain has supported President Bush's war policy and is on close terms with Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. He is the GOP's better angel in exposing the congressional Republican appetite for pork, the profligate highway bill and outrageous Defense Department collusion with Boeing Co. at taxpayer expense.

What transforms McCain from a conscience into a hairshirt is his refusal to consider any adjustment toward party loyalty in a presidential election year. Two weeks ago, he presided over Senate hearings on his global warming bill that dovetails with the Democratic election-year agenda. Last week, he joined with Democratic senators to pass a budget amendment that would effectively rule out tax cuts. Because neither of these proposals has the slightest chance of becoming law, they become exercises in politics -- Democratic politics.

Worse yet is what the veterans of McCain's 2000 presidential campaign say when no reporters are around. Other Republicans have been shocked by how contemptuous they are of the president and his record. At one recent private dinner, what the former McCain campaign operatives said was hardly distinguishable from Democratic ranting against Bush. That may be a cause or a result of McCain's conduct -- or possibly a combination of both.

The hard truth is that wounds of 2000 never really have healed for John McCain. When the congressional Republican leadership is complaining about the president's inability to project any message other than the war against terrorism, McCain's ability as a Republican to reach out to America could be helpful. Notwithstanding his proclivity to cause trouble, a strong commitment to Bush would have precluded him from seeming to reach out to Kerry.