Reaching Out to McCain
By David Ignatius
Friday, June 11, 2004; Page A25
In the days before Ronald Reagan's funeral, Sen. John McCain was pondering the political puzzle that Reagan probably handled better than any modern president: how to find a language that can speak to both Republicans and Democrats.
McCain doesn't see any easy answer, such as the much-discussed "national unity" ticket with Democrat John F. Kerry. But after visiting with his inner circle this week, I'm certain that he has thought carefully about it.
Despite McCain's public demurrals, he has been privately deliberating how things might work if he ever did agree to run as Kerry's vice presidential candidate. The bitter political divide in America worries McCain, especially when the nation is at war. He knows that for many Americans, he has become a symbol of a bipartisanship that could overcome these divisions -- and bring Red and Blue America closer together. That call to duty is powerful for McCain. He'll be 68 later this summer, and he knows that his time to shape American public life is now.
The Kerry camp has made overtures, and McCain has taken them seriously. He has tried to imagine the details of how such a partnership would work in practice. But the more McCain thinks about such a unity ticket, the more difficulties he sees.
McCain's problem is that while he genuinely likes Kerry as a friend, he disagrees with him on many important issues. Take Kerry's recent statement that he favors bilateral negotiations with North Korea. McCain has never favored that approach and thinks it would be a potentially dangerous mistake. How, he wonders, would the two reconcile such a sharp disagreement on one of the most important foreign policy issues facing the country?
Or take the sensitive issue of gays in the military. Kerry has indicated he wants a reexamination of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy favored by the military. McCain disagrees. How would they resolve that one?
Advocates of the national-unity approach, like me, argue that the fact that Kerry and McCain disagree is the whole point of their running together. They would each have to give ground on issues that matter to them, for the sake of the larger issue of the country's welfare. And they would have to work out a governing formula that allowed McCain to remain a Republican and be faithful to his values while working alongside Kerry.
That logic moves McCain, but it doesn't convince him. He wonders what would happen when the country faced its first serious foreign policy crisis. Let's assume that McCain was given special responsibility for defense and national security issues as vice president. That might allow McCain to insist on his preferred policy for North Korea. But he worries that if Kerry agreed to such a power-sharing formula, he would be fundamentally weakening the office of the presidency.
McCain knows that people respect him because he says what he thinks. And since he would continue to speak out if he were vice president, he fears a Kerry White House would inevitably -- necessarily -- put him on ice. And perhaps most important, by running with a Democrat, he would lose the chance to do what he most wants, which is to help broaden and revitalize the party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.
So the Arizona Republican probably means it when he says he won't run as Kerry's vice president. He rejects the idea not in principle but in practice. And he means it, too, when he says he plans to support George W. Bush and campaign for his reelection.
The Kerry campaign thus has two options if it truly favors a national-unity strategy. It can think through the problems that McCain is worrying about and try to woo him anew with a structure that could bridge differing viewpoints without destroying the coherence of a Kerry White House. Or, it can look for another moderate Republican such as Sen. Chuck Hagel or Sen. Richard Lugar, who, like McCain, are symbols of independence and bipartisanship.
What makes McCain so appealing as a unity candidate came through in a speech he gave last month on fiscal discipline. "I am a proud Republican," he said. "I revere Ronald Reagan and his party of limited government. Sadly, that party is no longer. The current version of the Republican Party is engaged in an outrageous spending binge, and they're being steadied and encouraged by the Democrats."
McCain concluded by invoking the war in Iraq. "Thousands of miles from here young men and women are putting everything on the line so we can be free. . . . In return, the least we can do is to make America a better place for them and their children." McCain enthusiasts would turn that challenge back on him: We understand your problems, senator, but your country needs you.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company