antagonism between Mr. Bush and Mr. McCain intensifies, and although
jokes can be made about it, as was
apparently done for the Gridiron audience, the joke doesn't travel
too well outside the Beltway.
What has been happening, in the last ten days, is a commitment to
finance reform that is personalizing the issue, encouraging a moral
impatience which 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-finance reform is encouraging
an adversarial position for Sen. McCain within the Republican party
that is bad news for the party, never mind McCain-Feingold.
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-finance 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 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-finance reform involving tough limitations on
contributions. If Sen. McCain found himself welcomed by Democratic
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 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