McCain’s segue to the center

McCain’s segue to the center

By: Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

By DOUGLAS COHN and ELEANOR CLIFT WASHINGTON — The crowd was small and dotted with anti-war protestors chanting “endless war,” prompting Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to joke that his speech might be longer than they would like. It was one of his many efforts to stay in the news while most of the media attention is focused on the Democratic contest. He chose the University of Denver in Colorado, a swing state where Democrats will hold their convention, to set down a marker on foreign policy that lands somewhere between President Bush and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., his likely opponent in the fall. Given the vast distance between the Bush policy of go-it-alone preventive military action and Obama’s willingness to talk without precondition to the leaders of unfriendly nations, McCain had plenty of room to find a world view with broad appeal. The centerpiece of his talk was a call for a new arms-control agreement with Russia to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in each country’s arsenal, a position that puts him at odds with the Bush administration, which opposes any new treaty that would put binding limits on nuclear weapons. McCain describes himself as an internationalist, and his rhetoric on curbing nuclear proliferation brings him close to the Obama camp, yet he took a hard line on Iran and North Korea, echoing rather than challenging Bush. His speech was long on rhetoric and short on detail, but it had the desired effect of casting McCain as a moderate when it comes to global affairs, a peacemaker rather than the last man standing in defense of a hundred-years war in Iraq. McCain has a steep hill to climb to make his candidacy attractive to both the Republican base and the Independent voters he needs to win in November. This week’s delicate dance on foreign policy is just the beginning. McCain may be shrewder than we think in his ability to pull off another pre-election makeover. For a candidate whose campaign was written off last summer, he engineered a remarkable comeback. He was never comfortable as a frontrunner, and now his whole mindset is that of an underdog who, if he wins, will do it despite his party and the ties he built to Bush when that looked like the thing to do. He still needs Bush to raise money and give him credibility with the GOP base, but this is just the beginning of the new centrist McCain. He’ll look for more ways to distance himself from the last seven years of Republican leadership, and with Bush’s blessing. Both men are pragmatic, and if McCain can sell himself to the voters as a moderate and keep the White House for his party, Bush will leave Washington feeling a whole lot better about how history will treat him. Instead of wholesale repudiation, it would be partial repudiation, more like former President George H.W. Bush’s “kinder and gentler” administration following two terms of President Reagan as opposed to a total revolution of party and attitude, as in Bill Clinton following the elder Bush. McCain’s choice of vice president is part of the makeover, which means runner-up former Gov. Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., has zero chance of making the cut. If McCain can’t count on the religious right supporting him over either Obama, he can forget the presidency. If he uses the vice-presidency to court evangelicals, he can forget Independents and along with them the presidency. Maneuvering to the center on foreign policy and even economic issues, given the stresses and strains of the mortgage meltdown, should be relatively easy for McCain. Finding a comfort level with a broad array of voters on social issues will be a much greater challenge. There’s plenty of room between Bush and Obama, but for McCain, who once called leaders of the religious right, “agents of intolerance,” the tiniest baby step away from Republican orthodoxy is fraught with risk. Published in the Messenger 6.3.08

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