Does McCain have a plan?

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted March 5, 2001

To watch the Sunday talking head shows one might get the idea that John McCain had some important position in his party or in the Congress. The man is everywhere.

McCain talks about campaign finance reform on Fox News Sunday at FOX's studio in Washington Sunday, February 18
McCain talks about campaign finance reform on "Fox News Sunday" at FOX's studio in Washington Sunday, February 18

He says he has a mandate to force a vote in Congress on campaign finance reform. Just where this mandate came from is unclear since George W. Bush defeated him, and defeated him soundly, for the GOP nomination for president. In pressing this vote on campaign finance reform McCain is going up against the leadership of his own party in both houses of Congress, as well as President Bush. That bothers him not at all. In fact, it reinforces his image as a maverick.

Not content with causing problems for his own party in the funding area, McCain is also preparing a bill on gun control. He figures he will have all the Democrats behind him as he nearly has with the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform measure. All he has to do then is to pick off a couple of liberal Republicans and he is home free. "I am introducing the gun control bill so the Republican Party can save itself," McCain says with typical humility.

And not yet done, McCain is planning to reintroduce the tobacco bill that went down in flames in the Congress before last. It is as if he has a checklist and is attempting to position himself opposite the mainstream of his party as often as possible.

All of this, of course, makes him the darling of the media, who frequently refer to him as Saint John. They cast him as a man of conscience, conveniently forgetting that it was McCain's role in the so-called Keating Five Scandal which thrust him upon the national scene in the first place. As is the case with so many in Washington, he only got religion after he got caught.

Where is all this leading? McCain is at the age where if he is going to run for president again, he will have to do it in 2004. But can he really take on an incumbent president in Republican primaries running on issues such as gun control and tobacco and campaign finance reform? First of all, Republicans support incumbents. Gerald Ford was an appointed president. He was weak. He went against the party on many issues. Ronald Reagan was popular and charismatic and he took him on and he lost in 1976. If Reagan couldn't defeat Ford, there is no way that McCain could defeat Bush in a party that is far more conservative today than it was in 1976.

So what does he have in mind, then?

Many commentators have noted the weak field on the Democratic side of the equation. Al Gore may run again, but if he couldn't defeat George W. Bush with peace and unprecedented prosperity on his side, he won't be in any better shape to defeat an incumbent George W. Bush. Hillary Clinton may have been so damaged by all of her husband's scandals leaving office, plus her own poor image based on everything from the book deal to taking gifts from the White House, that she may not be viable. You get beyond those two and the Democratic cast of characters is pretty slim

But what if John McCain gained this reputation for integrity and willingness to fight special interests and dragons of all sorts and then switched parties and sought the Democratic nomination for president in 2004. Then it would all make sense. Then he could run on the sorts of issues he is popularizing, which are anathema in Republican circles but which make him a hero in the Democrat caucus.

Then too he would get one more crack at George W. Bush, against whom it is said McCain's bitterness knows no bounds.

Let's put it this way. Either John McCain enjoys being a loner maverick, who will become increasingly isolated in his own party as time goes on, or he does have a game plan that eventually propels him into the other party, where he would be welcomed as a hero and where instantly he would have status as a presidential candidate. If you see any McCain in 2004 bumper stickers and they don't have an elephant on them you just might have a big fat clue.

Paul Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation.

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