By Charles Babington and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
Sen. John McCain's bid to position himself as the natural heir to President Bush as a wartime commander in chief and to court conservative leaders in advance of his likely 2008 presidential campaign has threatened to run aground in recent days, as the two men clash over how to detain and try terrorism suspects.
For months, McCain has been wooing Bush's donors, hiring his former advisers and standing by him in the Iraq debate. But the fragile rapprochement between two men who were once bitter rivals for the presidency is facing a sharp new test over McCain's rejection of Bush's pleas to let the administration interpret the Geneva Conventions as it sees fit.
The impasse, which has preoccupied Congress this month, is likely to be settled within a few days but could remain hanging when lawmakers adjourn in a few days. Either way, it is likely to carry a long echo -- especially if the senator from Arizona forces Bush to back down.
Substantively, the legislative battle will shape what limits the administration will face on its anti-terrorism policies in the final two years of Bush's term. Politically, McCain's willingness once again to confront Bush raises questions about how he will position himself toward the Republican Party's conservative base, which he has aggressively cultivated over the past year as he pursues the presidency.
In a reprise of criticism showered on McCain during his 2000 campaign, some prominent conservatives are branding him a disloyal Republican and an unreliable conservative because of his assertiveness on the detainee issue.
The senator's actions "are blocking our ability to gain from terrorist captives the vital information we need," said a front-page editorial Saturday in the Union Leader of Manchester, N.H., the largest newspaper in the state with the first presidential primary. Conservative radio talker Rush Limbaugh said Friday that opposition to Bush's approach "is going to go down as the event that will result in us getting hit again, and if we do, and if McCain, et al. , prevail, I can tell you where fingers are going to be pointed."
If McCain or his backers worry that such pointed criticism threatens his presidential hopes, they do not admit it, calling the issue a matter of principle on which the senator has had a long record. But his camp acknowledges being well aware of the potential political ramifications.
For now, those ramifications remain uncertain. McCain's maverick style has long been popular with GOP voters in New Hampshire, where he bested Bush in the 2000 primary, said Andy Smith, a pollster who directs the University of New Hampshire's Survey Center.
"I don't think this impacts him too much in New Hampshire," Smith said yesterday. Polls consistently show McCain well ahead of potential Republican rivals there, Smith said, and the Union Leader's once-feared editorial page "is nowhere near as strong as it used to be."
McCain's defiance of the administration could prove particularly troublesome in South Carolina, the early-primary state where Bush's hard-hitting attacks in 2000 killed McCain's momentum and put the Texas governor on the road to the White House. Yet McCain's most outspoken ally in the detainee dispute is the state's senior senator, freshman Republican Lindsey O. Graham, who spent years as a military lawyer.
In a telephone interview from South Carolina yesterday, Graham said: "What I hear is, people respect the commitment of the president to the [CIA interrogation] program, and they respect my commitment and Senator McCain's commitment to the troops."
Graham added: "Every editorial in the state has understood Senator McCain's and my concerns, and believe they are legitimate." The Geneva Conventions say wartime detainees must be "treated humanely." Bush says the United States complies so long as CIA interrogators abide by a 2005 law barring "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" treatment of captives. McCain and his allies say that the requirement is too narrow, and that they are concerned Bush's approach would invite other nations to interpret the conventions in lax ways that could lead to abusive treatment of captive U.S. troops.
Joined by virtually all 44 Senate Democrats, McCain and his supporters appear to have a solid majority in the 100-member chamber, where Bush's initiative is stalled.
From the moment the Supreme Court ruled in June that the Geneva Conventions cover U.S. detainees, the White House understood that McCain -- who was tortured as a Vietnam War prisoner -- would be the key voice on the issue. Bush aides hoped to persuade him to follow their approach. But they said they were not surprised when he did not, and in recent days they have been tempered in their comments about him.
"There's no question of motives that there may have been a couple years ago," said a senior administration official, who declined to speak for attribution about a powerful senator. "My sense is, this is paining him and this pains us. Neither of us wants to be in the position to have to do this and have it spill out into public."
If anything, the White House appears more irked by Graham, who Bush advisers believed had been supportive of their position until a few weeks ago. But the White House did not shy away from a fight with McCain, convinced that the politics would favor the president's side.
"They're not spooked by the opposition by McCain," said William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard. "They believe they can win the issue legislatively . . . and if a few Republicans join all the Democrats, so be it." Although he professed respect for the senator for following his principles, Kristol said "it hurts McCain" politically because "it's just not where most Republicans are."
John Weaver, McCain's top political adviser, said it is possible the move will hurt his presidential hopes but added: "I don't see evidence of it so far, other than the armchair quarterbacking that we've experienced."
"When John does what he think is right, it usually works out in all ways, including politically," Weaver said. "When we take the expedient route, it doesn't work out."
Asked for an example, he cited the 2000 debate over public display of the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina. McCain initially called the flag "a symbol of racism" but softened his views, leading to accusations of waffling and pandering.
Nonetheless, a Republican strategist close to the White House said McCain risks alienating his primary base in the detainee dispute.
"The politics of this for him are pretty dangerous," said the strategist, who spoke anonymously to avoid antagonizing the senator. "This is an issue that's the most important issue to the Republican base overall, and they're strongly with the president on this."
The strategist added: "This is a manageable issue today. But I don't know that it's manageable if Congress leaves without doing anything."