The Second Option

So we seem, for the time being, to have avoided the ‘nuclear option’ that would have forcibly silenced debate in the Senate over some of George W. Bush’s judicial appointments. Time will tell how long the vague compromise reached by the ‘Group of 14’ will last (possible answer: about as long as Justice Scalia).

One of the most interesting bits of this article comes in the final paragraph:

For McCain, the impetus — and the satisfaction — might have been more personal. In leading his colleagues to a deal, McCain presided over a group of moderates and self-styled mavericks who suddenly see themselves as the road to progress in a polarized Senate. And he did so, coincidentally or not, at the expense of George W. Bush and Bill Frist, the man to whom McCain lost in the nasty Republican primaries of 2000 and the man McCain may face in the presidential primaries to come in 2008.

There’s been a fair amount of chatter lately over who will claim the Republican nomination in 2008. They’ve ranged from the obvious (Frist) to the less-than-likely (Dick Cheney, whose personal charisma makes Al Gore seem like a golden god). McCain has been confined for years to the position of an also-ran, seemingly unable to break through to become an anointed candidate despite his popularity and his Senate record. Ironically, the very trait that makes him a great presidential candidate may be the biggest stumbling block for his nomination: his independence. McCain has carved out a position in the Senate as a moderate who is both able to cooperate with Democrats on key issues, and willing to voice criticism of his own party’s leadership- Bush’s handling of the Iraq invasion, for instance. But it’s this willingness to break ranks that may have been keeping McCain from getting the support from within the party needed to break out as a primary front runner. Already, the Republican’s ultra-religious base are decrying the compromise that was achieved in the Senate. There are significant portions of the Republican party who don’t want a moderate, and won’t accept a moderate like McCain unless he is encumbered by policy planks that enshrine their take on pet causes- and likely a hand-picked vice presidential candidate with impeccable religious ‘credentials’ as well. Despite recent attempts at outreach, it’s likely that McCain is as wary of the religious right as they are of him- the absolutist views of people like James Dobson (who called the Senate compromise a ‘complete betrayal’) are incompatible with those of a common-sense moderate like McCain.

So look for McCain to once again become a highly-touted Republican candidate in 2008. If McCain can resign himself to it, look for him to capture the nomination and add a more traditionally conservative vice-president to the ticket, in an attempt to make nice with the party’s influential supporters among the Christian right.

The ability of the Republican party to cajole its right-wing religious supporters into accepting a moderate could make a significant difference in who wins the White House in 2008. McCain is clearly the strongest presence with moderate voters that the Republicans have right now; already during the 2004 election, there were a few dedicated voices calling for John Kerry to cross party lines and nominate McCain for his vice president (a pipe dream, surely, but an indication of the appeal that McCain has even for Democratic voters), and the Senate compromise will only cement his support among moderate Republicans and Democrats.

If the Christian right won’t concede to McCain carrying the flag in 2008, it opens the door to a whole range of other candidates less capable of capturing moderate voters. Most of the other Republicans currently in top positions- Frist, Cheney, Rice, DeLay- are compromised by their association with the intelligence and military debacle in Iraq (Cheney and Rice), public disapproval of the handling of the Schiavo case (Frist, DeLay), or ethical concerns (DeLay, Cheney). If McCain isn’t the nominee in 2008, a weaker candidate will be. If Democrats are able to field a candidate with even modest moderate credentials, or manage to capitalize on the Republican’s weak points (as they were unable to do in 2004), it could mean the loss of the White House for the GOP.

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