To play the presidential card

Posted: Mar 15, 2006 12:05 AM

The 2008 presidential primary season started a few days ago. And aspirants in both parties quickly played the George W. Bush card -- to meager effect. In the Democratic primary, Sen. Russ Feingold launched his campaign on the floor of the Senate calling for President Bush's censure.

"I don't introduce a censure resolution lightly," Mr. Feingold said, as he floated out of the Senate chamber. It was hard to tell which party was more put off by Mr. Feingold's action, the Democrats or the Republicans. Sen. Frist, "outraged," called the motion a political stunt during time of war and called for a quick vote.

In chess, this move is called a fork: attacking two of the opposing pieces simultaneously. His attack threatens those Democratic senators who would vote for the Feingold motion -- as that would mis-position the Democrats with the public. He also threatens those Democratic senators who would vote against the motion -- as that would show a divided Democratic Party (as well as force many Democrats to vote in support of the president they hate so much.)

The ever more put upon Democratic leader Sen. Reid both declined to permit such a vote, while he also declined to endorse the motion because he "hadn't read it" -- which was his veiled way of expressing his displeasure at not having been informed in advance of Sen. Feingold's plans.

Russ Feingold is notoriously not a party man. This may play well in his conscience and in the countryside, but it is a non-starter in this two-team town. The Senate Democrats may well agree in principle that the president should be censured or keelhauled, or de-trousered or short-sheeted, or inflicted with some other indignity.

But there is a long line of more senior Democrats who have been waiting patiently to get their licks in. Sen. Feingold jumped the question, if not the shark. The more seasoned, team-playing Democrats want to use the old Chinese water torture on the president -- dragging out the agony for months and months. Or, as they call it in Washington, the issue "would spark a worthwhile debate."

It is odd that the same senators who believe in water torture for the president of the United States vigorously oppose similar water-related interrogation techniques when used on captured enemy terrorists. But then I suppose the president is not covered by what Michael Savage calls the Democratic Party's "Terrorist Bill of Rights."

This goes to the heart of the Democrat's displeasure with Russ "Hang-'em High" Feingold. He centered his censure motion on Mr. Bush's alleged violation of the FISA law. But wiser Democrats understood the political dis-utility of going after the president by using a legal pettifoggering interpretation (or mis-interpretation) of a law to stop the president from the wildly popular act of monitoring terrorist communications into our country.

Sen. Feingold has all the early indications of being this season's Eugene McCarthy -- without the wit or poetry.

Meanwhile in the Republican Party primary campaign, their non-team player, Sen. John McCain, also played the Bush card. In a heartfelt tribute to his beloved commander in chief while at war, Sen. McCain (George Bush's 2000 primary challenger) asked all his many supporters at the Republican Party straw poll conclave in Tennessee last weekend to cast their votes for Bush rather than McCain.

In the event, Bush got only 10 percent. The trouble with McCain's generous gesture was that almost everyone (including even his most admiring big journalism commentators) couldn't help but speculate that McCain's gesture might not have been motivated by a sense of willing sacrifice.

As a party gadfly who has gone out of his way to be rude to conservative southern Christian leaders over the years, McCain was not expected to have much support in a meeting down south of party regulars and conservative Christian leaders. So his forswearing of any support seemed calculated to hide the lack of much support to forswear in the first place.

This would be business as usual for most politicians -- and perhaps even admired as a shrewd move. But as Sen. McCain has made his reputation on the appearance of being a "straight-shooter," any appearance of duplicity -- whether real or only apparent -- will tend to undercut his greatest strength.

Moreover, he and his aides should have been shrewd enough to anticipate the doubt that such a maneuver would induce. However, he has a deep reservoir of national admiration (outside of the truest Republican precincts), so he has done himself only a very little harm. But he should take this event as a lesson to stick with the image "what brung him to the dance."

All presidential elections are, to a measurable degree, a referendum on the sitting president who is to be replaced. Over the next two and a half years the Bush card will be played over and over again by every candidate in both parties. It is both the most powerful and most dangerous card in the deck. It is always wild, inducing both love and hate in different voters simultaneously. It should be a warning to all aspirants, that in this first round of political poker, it was misplayed by both the men who dealt it.