Big Bad John

Let me begin by admitting that if fortune decrees that the next president of the United States must be another conservative Republican, I'd certainly rather it be John McCain than George Allen, Tom Tancredo, Newt Gingrich, or most of the other current
right-wing heartthrobs.

But have no illusions: McCain is a very conservative Republican who has now embarked on the project of reaffirming his position as the rightful heir to Barry Goldwater's politics as well as his Senate seat. Last month, for example, McCain voted to extend the very tax cuts that he had once voted against, a move that tax-cut strategist Larry Hunter correctly described to The Washington Times as “a further morphing of McCain into George W. Bush.”

So, with this homecoming, we bring to an end one of the most fascinating eras in American politics: the five years during which McCain, with the help of an adoring press, essentially defined and controlled the concept of “bipartisanship.” Consider that there have been two ways to get anything done since Bush became president: The way of the Hastert Rule and the way of McCain. The Hastert Rule is an explicit operating principle of the House of Representatives that holds that nothing can reach the House floor unless it has support of a majority among Republicans alone. Combined with other practices, it has effectively ruled out most bipartisan deals and has rendered Democrats irrelevant.

The only exceptions to one-party rule have come from McCain, most notably with the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 and with last year's amendment banning torture. McCain's role in the unsuccessful deal on climate change is also worth noting. Bipartisanship has been a scarce resource in recent Congresses, and McCain effectively cornered the market.

This is -- was -- quite an achievement. With the possible exception of Henry Clay, “The Great Compromiser,” has there ever been an American politician who has managed to hold and exercise informal power in this particular way? Back when I worked in the Senate, which sometimes seems as distant as the era of Clay, Webster, and Calhoun, there were always multiple senators and representatives who were likely to be involved in any bipartisan deal. Republican senators like Senators John Chafee, John Danforth, and Dave Durenberger were sure to find seats at any bipartisan table, and even conservatives like Pete Domenici of New Mexico could be brought into coalitions, such as his alliance with Paul Wellstone on mental health. Because there were enough such wheeler-dealers among Republicans, they formed shifting alliances, and no individual senator could consistently make or break the deal.

But those Republicans either retired or, like Domenici, have elected to play a reliably partisan role. That left McCain alone as the broker of bipartisanship. And it's a role he has guarded jealously. Recall McCain's recent slashing attack on Barack Obama as “partisan” for choosing to pursue ethics reform through the regular committee process in the Senate rather than an ad hoc task force created by McCain. He couldn't stomach someone pursuing a bipartisan deal that wasn't his own.

McCain's monopoly on bipartisanship, and the one-party rule that prevails otherwise, have been mutually interdependent phenomena. If actual opportunities for bipartisanship were not so limited, McCain would have much less power. At the same time, McCain provides a kind of safety valve for the natural pressures that would resist one-party control, letting out just enough pressure so that a political arrangement that perpetually seems unsustainable manages to hold on.

The unique role McCain has created self-evidently serves his own political purposes, supporting the impression that he is a figure who transcends party and ideology, an image that he presumably hopes is implanted strongly enough in the public mind that it will survive all the acts of obeisance demanded by the gatekeepers of his party's nomination.

But it has also served the political purposes of the Bush administration to have the only exceptions to its command-and-control structure pass through a single person, and one who is on a short leash because of his presidential ambitions. When Bush, on signing the torture ban, issued a statement saying that he intended to ignore it, McCain meekly promised to “monitor the administration's implementation” of the law.

If there had been no McCain, perhaps there would be no campaign-finance law, no torture amendment, no progress toward action on climate change. So for all that, we should be modestly grateful. But I suspect that the Bushies signing on to McCain's campaign understand exactly how helpful his monopoly on bipartisanship has been to their sustained control, and are grateful in their own way.

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