In case you missed it in all the noisy hyperbole and commercialization surrounding Watergate revisited, at least one half of the 2008 presidential campaign – the Republican side – has begun, with the Memorial Day TV airing of a Vietnam memoir, a long piece in the New Yorker magazine and an 11th-hour compromise in the Senate. All three have served to dispel any notion that Sen. John McCain is not running for the GOP opportunity to succeed George W. Bush.
Enticingly, there is even a hint – but just a hint, mind you – that the current reigning political genius, White House adviser Karl Rove, might be willing to do more for McCain than just give a hand here and there, certifying just how far the Arizona conservative/moderate has come in mending his party fences since he beat Bush in the 2000 New Hampshire primary. Furthermore, the polls show him, as they do Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democrats, the most popular figure among the possibilities, including Senate GOP leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, undercut by the compromise on judicial filibusters that McCain helped effect.
While it may be a bit early to make any solid predictions, McCain has a history of staying the course as portrayed in the Arts & Entertainment-run production recounting the 5-1/2 years he spent as a prisoner of war during Vietnam. The movie based on his 1999 book, “Faith of Our Fathers,” was a critically acknowledged testament to man’s ability to withstand even the worst conditions if he remains true to his beliefs and goals. Stay tuned for multiple reruns as the campaign begins in earnest in about 12 to 18 months.
That’s the general time line for starting an all-out push by candidates in the modern era of presidential politics who believe one has little chance of reaching the finals unless the journey begins at least two years ahead. For instance, North Carolina’s John Edwards, last year’s failed Democratic vice-presidential nominee, already has made it clear he is up for another run for the presidential nomination. And Clinton has been shifting her views to the center, ostensibly for a re-election bid in New York next year, but most certainly in preparation for the ultimate prize, the Democratic nomination.
The New Yorker’s extended piece by Connie Bruck is notable for its portrayal of a less angry McCain, who has worked diligently to overcome the “maverick” image largely because of campaign spending reform that so angered the party’s base despite his seeming empathy with a large part of it. Most importantly, Bruck notes that his relations with the White House have improved dramatically with his softening of criticism of, and his support for, the president. She talks specifically of Rove’s apparent willingness to bury any lingering animosity.
While the magazine piece does not drop to the level of a puff job, it clearly was not meant to be insightfully critical either. In fact, Bruck notes several times that McCain is a Republican who is anti-abortion rights, pro-family, fiscally conservative and strong on defense, all things the party cherishes most in its candidates. That’s the message McCain must convey if he is to clear the primary hurdles in 2008.
In a conversation with several Washington pundits recently, it was overwhelmingly the opinion that McCain would never be able to appease the Republican base despite his masterful performance in helping engineer the compromise on judicial appointments. In fact, there was expressed belief his role, as deftly handled as it was, had hurt him further with evangelicals. Much of that negativism, however, was based on past performances as a dissident.
Frist’s seeming lack of managerial skills, as reflected in his failure to block the filibuster compromise, and a shortage of political insight have tarnished his image among conservatives _ in the short term, at least. He has indicated that he is not running for re-election to the Senate in 2006, and presumably will spend a lot of the next two years on improving his chances for the nomination. Meanwhile, McCain is already out there raising the money and courting the voters he will need.
It is an ever-lengthening process.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)