Politics & Policy

Playing The System

If McCain wants to run in '08, he's got to remain viable among the Republican base.

The conventional wisdom among media insiders is now that John McCain wants to run for president in 2008. And why not?

McCain’s rapprochement with Bush may be based partly on a personal thaw and partly on a shared conviction about the necessity of waging a vigorous war on terror. But McCain wouldn’t be a politician if there weren’t a calculation as well: maintaining his viability within the system–namely, the Republican party.

There is no doubt that McCain has already helped himself in recent months in the (very) proto race for the nomination in 2008. A member of the Bush team who gleefully helped engineer the destruction of McCain 2000 now admires the senator’s support of Bush’s leadership on the war on terror: “He’s heart-felt, he’s genuine, he’s compelling.” McCain demonstrated that yet again with his Monday-night speech here. With his media cachet and his independent-voter cred, McCain is a major asset to the GOP. Republican senatorial campaign chairman George Allen jokes that he’s jealous that McCain is spending so much time with Bush–when he could be out helping Allen’s Senate candidates too. Even an inveterate McCain critic like myself can’t help the occasional stirring of warm feelings toward him.

As for 2008, McCain has a head start–insofar as he has already run. He might even have won in 2000, if he had gotten to Bush’s right on just one important issue and avoided attacking the heart of the party: Christian conservatives.

But when push came to shove, McCain sided with his base in an adoring liberal media, instead of with the base of his own party. He proved the difficulty of winning over the Republican party when, at bottom–as an independent-oriented critic of partisan politics–you can’t stand the Republican party.

For McCain, then, this is his most basic task at the convention if he truly wants to run again in 2008: Relax and spend some time with Republicans this week. Who knows–he might even learn to like them.

Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review.

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