Sen. John McCain has been off center stage during recent political battles but he once again grabbed the spotlight to do what he does best – step on the toes of Republican Party leaders. And his actions have revived speculation about his presidential ambitions.
Just six months after winning election to a fourth term from Arizona with 77 percent of the vote, and less than three years before the beginning of the presidential selection process in Iowa and New Hampshire, McCain is returning to the public’s consciousness in a big way.
In addition to brokering the deal that preserved the judicial filibuster and dashed President Bush’s desire for Senate floor votes for all of his nominees to the bench, America’s most famous POW introduced legislation earlier this month to reform the nation’s immigration system _ an issue that, according to the polls, is of prime interest to the voting public.
McCain, who is regularly pictured attending various sporting events featuring teams out of Phoenix, attracted the news cameras this week when he announced the introduction of a bill that would require professional teams to institute a strict steroids testing regimen, entailing a two-year suspension for any player caught violating the policy.
And on Memorial Day, the A&E Network will telecast the new film, “Faith of My Fathers,” based on McCain’s book of the same name, that details the military exploits of his family, in addition to his experiences in a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp.
McCain insists the recent turn of events is not intended to further enhance his political appeal. In fact, the veteran lawmaker said some of his recent activities, like the filibuster agreement, could harm any ambitions.
“I knew it would hurt me, I knew it could hurt me. I’m not dumb,” McCain told reporters Monday after the agreement was announced. “I wouldn’t have come out against the nuclear option if my political ambitions were playing a role in this.”
Just what those ambitions might be remain open to speculation. McCain challenged then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, rolling to a thunderous victory in the New Hampshire primary before falling victim to the Bush campaign’s hardball tactics in South Carolina and beyond.
At that point, McCain, already 64, indicated his opportunity to serve as president had passed. In his memoir, “Worth the Fighting For,” he cited his failure in 2000 and said, “I doubt I shall have reason or opportunity to try again.”
But there are plenty of political observers who maintain McCain still has his eye on the White House, even though he’ll be 72 when his next chance rolls around.
Should he once again seek the presidency, McCain appears to be blazing a bipartisan route to get there. The judicial filibuster compromise involved 14 lawmakers _ seven Democrats and Seven Republicans _ to bring the upper chamber “back from the precipice,” he said. On the immigration bill, he has teamed up with no less a Democrat than Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. Among those he worked with on the anti-steroids proposal was Rep. Henry Waxman of California, another Democratic firebrand.
Sometimes that means irritating the Republican leadership. McCain has friends on the Democratic side of the aisle _ he was close to former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and was considered vice presidential timbre by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., during his unsuccessful presidential run last year _ and basks in his reputation as a maverick.
McCain openly battled with Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., during Lott’s tenure as majority leader, and he has not been tight with Senate Republican Whip Mitch McConnell of Kentucky since the bitter fight over campaign finance reform legislation McCain championed a few years ago. Now, after the judicial filibuster agreement, he finds himself on the wrong side of Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.
Social conservatives, a strong constituency within the GOP, have never been enamored with McCain and now are more alienated from him than ever after the filibuster vote. Gary Bauer, who challenged both McCain and Bush for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 and now serves as president of American Values, said the actions taken by McCain and the others who took part in the compromise agreement “undercut their president as well as millions of their most loyal voters. Shame on them all.”
McCain remains on friendly terms with Bush, despite the strong words the rivals exchanged during the campaign five years ago, appearing with him recently at a rally for Social Security reform. McCain isn’t the administration’s most reliable vote but he occasionally comes through _ it was Bush who suggested that something be done about steroids in sports during his 2004 State of the Union address.
(Contact Bill Straub at straubb(at)shns.com)