The McCain gambit

Just as Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman is the Republicans' favorite Democrat (now that Zell Miller is retired from the Senate), Arizona Senator John McCain is the Democrats' favorite Republican. McCain's selective opposition to domestic policy initiatives of the Bush administration and his challenge to the President for the nomination in 2000 secured his firmest base, the nation's mainstream political writers and broadcasters. Whether McCain would have held that support against Al Gore in the 2000 general election is unclear, but he was certainly the MSM's choice against then—Governor Bush in the 2000 race's primary season.

E.J. Dionne had a fascinating column yesterday hinting that the latest intrigue of the Bush—Rove team to preserve the GOP's dominance in 2008 and beyond might be a McCain Presidential run in 2008. The price for the Bush team's support for McCain in the wide—open GOP nominating process in 2008 would be for McCain to put Florida Governor Jeb Bush on the ticket as the VP nominee. This would potentially set up Bush to run on his own in 2012, whether McCain won or lost in 2008. (McCain would be 76 running for re—election in 2012, so he might be a one—termer and might even use a voluntary term limit as a strategy to add to his appeal in 2008.) 

McCain, while a reliable pro—life supporter, has antagonized many Republican base voters with his straying from the Bush agenda on various issues. His recent effort to achieve a compromise on judicial nominations has deepened the sujspicions of many. As Fred Barnes, hardly a McCain enthusiast, has recently pointed out though, that compromise has gotten five formerly filibustered Bush nominees onto the Appeals Court in short order, and in retrospect might have been a significant GOP victory. A victory, it should be noted, achieved mostly through skillful use of the threat of the nuclear option by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, another possible presidential contender, with an assist by McCain.

Jeb Bush in many ways would be the strongest GOP candidate in 2008: very popular in the critical battleground state of Florida, well spoken (minimizing the condescending snickers about low intelligence for the current President from the Democrats and journalists), and popular with the GOP's large conservative and religious base. But a Presidential succession of Bush—Clinton—Bush—Bush is probably unrealistic.

McCain could be a strong candidate against the likely Democratic nominee in 2008, New York Senator Hillary Clinton, were he able to secure the nomination. Concern over the Republican base staying home would be lessened by the probable turnout to defeat Hillary. Clinton would presumably prefer a candidate from the right, somebody easier to demagogue and who would leave more open ground in the center.

So exactly why Dionne, a liberal writer, is pushing the McCain—Bush scenario is of interest. One possibility is that some Democratic Party strategists and supporters think Hillary might not be a good general election candidate, or at a minimum, resent the nomination being sewn up almost three years before the formal nominating process begins. If McCain, seen as a centrist, were the likely GOP nominee, then the Democrats might be forced to consider an alternative candidate, someone less polarizing than Hillary, such as Virginia Governor Mark Warner or Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, both of whom are already out testing the waters (along with the former 2004 ticket—mates of John Kerry,  and John Edwards, and Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold).
In any case, Dionne is not the guy you would expect to be laying out a scenario for the continuation of a Bush family role in national politics.  But as I pointed out earlier, 2008 is the first "open" Presidential race since 1952, since no sitting President or Vice President is likely to be in the race (assuming Dick Cheney is honest when he says that will not run). 

Such a rare open seat encourages lots of early maneuvering, and lots of presidential wannabes. Expect many more gambits. We are entering one of the most interesting period for political strategists in a long time.