All the way for McCain?

Posted: Mar 28, 2001 12:00 AM
The antagonism between George Bush and John McCain intensifies, and although jokes can be made about it, as was apparently done for the audience at the Gridiron Club's annual dinner last week, the joke doesn't travel too well outside the Beltway.

What has been happening in the last 10 days is a commitment to finance reform that is personalizing the issue, encouraging a moral impatience that Sen. McCain seems to be cultivating. Granted that he pledged himself during the election season to the cause of McCain-Feingold, what he manifestly refuses to do is accept his defeat for the Republican nomination as tantamount to the defeat of his credentials as GOP leader. This refusal to bend on campaign financing is encouraging an adversarial position for Sen. McCain within the Republican Party that is bad news for the party, never mind McCain-Feingold.

Slate magazine's "Today's Papers" suggests that the brewing opposition by McCain could mean two dire things: (1) forthright political opposition to Bush in 2004; (2) a run by McCain for president on an independent ticket. Still another -- enticingly suggested by a keen young political observer -- is a run for president as a Democrat.

Differences on campaign financing reform don't exhaust the McCain wing of the party. There are different emphases on the environment and taxes, and latent differences on foreign policy may materialize. The launching point of contention is campaign finance, but a flowering of differences can be anticipated.

There is an ambivalence by Senate Democrats on the question. They are ostensibly in favor of the campaign reform, but it is widely acknowledged that the scenario that truly appeals to them would have President Bush vetoing a bill, casting him as a friend of vested interests. If that were to happen, the Democrats would make a noisy public demonstration. Alternatively, Mr. Bush would sign a bill and the Democrats would encourage constitutional appetites for a veto by the Supreme Court.

But an alternative that Sen. McCain might welcome would be the passage of an ambiguous bill that he would renounce as insufficient to consummate what he interprets as a national mandate. If that were to happen, he could begin to identify himself with those Democrats who truly believe in campaign reform involving tough limitations on contributions. If Sen. McCain found himself welcomed by Democratic campaign reformers, he would inevitably be encouraged to fortify his position as Republican oppositionist to a president about whom, it would be constantly repeated, there was to begin with an ambiguous presidential vote.

The trick, for Democratic presidential hopefuls, would be to encourage a mutinous dissent by McCain without creating a political figure who is generally accepted as the opposition leader. A lot of Democrats would welcome any former Republican who led their party to a national victory, but this would not include Democrats who themselves want to be president.

People are criticizing the senator, the refrain being: "Look, John, the other guy won." But John McCain is not to be dismissed as merely another obstinate, vainglorious politician. His credentials are simply undeniable. Whatever has happened in the past 30 years, nothing can distract from the presumptive respect he has earned as a great, courageous, human being. Yet his bid for effective political control of the GOP Senate has to be challenged forthrightly by President Bush, in language that can be decisive for as long as Sen. McCain has acquired less than a competitive standing against the president. The campaign-finance law is not ideal for drawing this line in the sand. There is too much to be said by bright Republicans fed up with rampant financial contributions to dismiss the idea of reform out of hand.

President Bush will need to maneuver shrewdly, always to appear reasonable, yet decisive enough to establish that he is the effective leader of the GOP and, indeed, that if Sen. McCain does not want to acknowledge this, he will need to find another party to call home. To stage-manage all of this is difficult, in part because, day after day, events in the Senate obscure the orientation of reform. When on Monday the Senate voted to restrict policy advertisements by interest groups in the last 60 days of a campaign, this was thought a blow to McCain, the reasoning being that mini-reforms militate against a maxi-reform.

But the reasoning becomes devious in the public understanding. It is one thing for McCain to say: I want 100 percent and will strike against 95 percent. He can do that, but Mr. Bush has the trickier problem of undermining McCain's obduracy with less than apparent unconcern for an issue that has achieved national popularity.

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