2008 Rivals Frist, McCain Both Won in Nuclear Deal

Posted May 25, 2005 at 5:52pm

As he left Monday’s press conference announcing the pact averting the Senate’s “nuclear” standoff, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said, “The first question that the media are going to ask us is, ‘Who won and who lost?’ The Senate won and the country won.” [IMGCAP(1)]

That’s true. And McCain won, too, emerging — once again — as a courageous, independent leader who’s not only willing to take on passionate interest groups but also able to achieve a decisive victory.

Some of those who support McCain for the 2008 presidential nomination think his victory represents a defeat for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), his prospective presidential rival. Democrats quickly began crowing about a Frist defeat, too.

But that’s inaccurate. Frist won, too, and Democrats lost. The “Gang of 14” deal that McCain brokered makes it all but certain that the three Bush judicial nominees Democrats had labeled “radical extremists” will be confirmed.

In fact, it’s nearly as certain that five of seven nominees previously faced with filibusters will become appellate judges. Maybe even six will be approved, depending on the outcome of action on 9th Circuit nominee William Myers.

Moreover, contrary to Democratic spinning that Frist’s nuclear option is off the table, it’s not. It’s merely sheathed.

If Democrats resume filibustering judicial nominees who don’t qualify as “extraordinary circumstances,” Frist can move anew to change the Senate rules to ban filibusters.

It’s true that some hotheads on what McCain calls “the far right” are deeply unhappy with the deal because the nuclear option was not detonated. Some also criticize Frist for not being able to control all 55 Republicans.

Apparently eager to curry favor with the right, Sens. George Allen (Va.) and Chuck Hagel (Neb.) — both presidential hopefuls — denounced the deal. “Our activists will not be happy with this solution,” Allen said. “I’m not.”

At the same time, it’s worth noting the response of Focus on the Family’s James Dobson. While he denounced the deal as “a complete bailout and betrayal by a cabal of Republicans,” (he was no friend of McCain’s anyway), he also praised Frist for “courageously fighting to defend the vital principle of basic fairness.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the 14, had it exactly right when he said that “without Frist, there would have been no McCain, no breakthrough. Frist pushed [the nuclear option] to the wall. Without a deadline, there would have been no deal.”

Graham, who supported McCain in the 2000 presidential election, said the deal “helps reinforce what people think of McCain,” while altering Frist’s image. “Frist will lose some as the wise doctor with the friendly face. He comes out looking harder. But with the base, he establishes himself as a tough guy.”

It’s clear that Frist has been working overtime to cement his position with the GOP base, particularly the religious right. As The Economist magazine recently noted, Frist, in his 1989 book “Transplant,” argued for changing the legal definition of “brain death” to make it easier to harvest the organs of anencephalic babies certain to die but still showing some brain activity.

This year, by contrast, Frist led the way in trying to take federal jurisdiction over Terry Schiavo, even “diagnosing” her on the basis of a videotape.

Two tests may come soon on just how far Frist will go to appeal to GOP base voters: embryonic stem cells and immigration.

House moderates succeeded Tuesday in passing legislation to lift President Bush’s limits on federal funding of stem-cell research using embryos “left over” at fertility clinics. McCain, who despite the radical right’s criticisms is firmly anti-abortion, has endorsed the measure. It remains to be seen whether Frist, who defended Bush’s limits, will call up a companion bill. It’s also unclear how he would vote on the issue.

On immigration, McCain is the co-sponsor with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) of a bill regularly denounced by many (though not all) conservatives as granting “amnesty” to illegal immigrants. Actually, it sensibly (and humanely) strengthens border security while permitting illegals and new immigrants to obtain work permits and legal status, as long as the illegals keep a clean record and pay a fine.

What Frist will do on immigration remains to be seen. Even supporting Bush’s position — work permits without legal status — will offend hardline right-wingers.

When I asked several GOP professionals whether McCain could win the presidential nomination, some of them, such as former Republican National Committee Chairman Bill Brock, responded with a long, long pause.

Finally, Brock said: “Yes, but he’s got a high hill to climb,” because of frequent breaks from the party line.

Still, Brock said, “he’s the best known of the potential candidates, and he’d have a head start.” And with his appeal to independents (and also Hispanics), McCain could be the choice of a party that’s “hungry to win.”

Another former chairman, though, said he doubted that McCain could do it. “His problem is not so much with establishment Republicans as with rank-and-file Republicans in closed-primary states like South Carolina and Virginia. It’s hard to get the Republican nomination when you spend three-quarters of your time as the anti-Republican,” he said, referring to McCain’s opposition to Bush’s tax cuts and oil drilling in Alaska and support for campaign finance reform and action to curb global warming.

McCain says he hasn’t made up his mind whether he will run again, but boosters point out that, if he does, he should have going for him the fact that he refused an offer to be Democrat Sen. John Kerry’s (Mass.) running mate in 2004 and campaigned tirelessly for Bush and other Republicans.

In addition, McCain, unlike Hagel, has been a steadfast supporter of Bush’s Iraq policy, even if sometimes a critic of its implementation. McCain has also strongly backed John Bolton’s nomination to be U.N. ambassador.

The nuclear option deal certainly is good for the Senate and the country. It preserves the Senate’s historic role as a protector of minority rights resistant to popular passions. It keeps the Senate from breaking down in partisan warfare and allows it to do the public’s business.

It’s hard to know whether the nuclear option fight will be a factor in a presidential contest three years from now, but at this moment it ought to be clear that McCain was a major force in pulling the Senate back from the brink of chaos and that Frist got Bush’s judges confirmed. Other potential candidates were just bystanders.