LOS ANGELES – I have to hand it to the Republicans. They might not want the hand, but they deserve it. If things continue the way they’ve gone, they’re on the verge of nominating the candidate many of them like least and many of my friends like most as their nominee for president.
Which is to say, they’ve done the right thing, right if you care about winning, that is, not to mention the country’s best interest, as opposed to ideological purity.
I’ve always liked John McCain. I’ve liked him because I think he’s smart and independent, and because his willingness to work with folks on the other side of the aisle to get things done reminded me of the way Washington used to function, in the good or bad old days, before meanness and partisanship run amok made it seem like you were a traitor if you had a drink after work with someone you’d been fighting against a few hours before.
I’ve liked him because his response to getting caught up in the scandal with Charlie Keating and the savings and loan mess. (For those who don’t remember, and I’m sure there will be many on my side only too eager to remind you, McCain was one of the five senators who picked up the phone to try to help the scoundrel who spread around money to politicians even as he was running his federally insured S & L into the ground, and then sought the intervention of his friends and beneficiaries in order to try to get the feds off his back, even though that was precisely where they belonged.)
McCain took the lead in trying to clean up the campaign finance mess that leads decent people like McCain and former Sen. John Glenn (another of the so-called “Keating 5") to take money and do favors for scoundrels like Charlie Keating.
Some of my conservative friends, of course, have never forgiven McCain, not for his involvement with Charlie Keating, but for spearheading what came to be known as the McCain-Feingold reforms of campaign finance; they thought the old system favored Republicans, which maybe it did then, and they liked it just fine.
I’ve also liked him because he had the guts and the gumption to try to do something about the enormous immigration problem in this country, a problem that includes not only the popular part, which is the need to improve enforcement of the law at the border, but also the unpopular (at least with conservative talkshow hosts) part, which is the need to address, in a humane way, the problem facing millions of folks who live here and work here and help keep our economy running, but whose status is “undocumented” even though many of them have grown up in this country and have relatives, often their children, who are American citizens.
It isn’t "blanket amnesty" to provide a fair way for them to address their status without breaking up their families, but that’s not how it comes across when the demagogues get ahold of it, which is why so many Republican presidential candidates tripped over each other to claim that they were the toughest on “illegal aliens”-- and to condemn McCain for his efforts to work with Ted Kennedy and President Bush to come up with a workable, fair, compromise.
Of course, there are a host of issues where I part company with John McCain, abortion rights and the war in Iraq being two that jump to mind, front and center. And I still remember some of the moments when I’ve cringed at his idea of humor (joking about Chelsea Clinton’s looks was no doubt the worst) or have been taken aback by reports of his explosive temper.
I won’t be voting for him in a general election, but given my druthers, I wouldn’t want to be facing him in one either.
In my book, McCain was at his worst when, early in the campaign (which he started as the frontrunner, or at least one of them) he seemed to be going hat in hand to the conservatives who had derided him for so long, trying to prove that he was what he wasn’t-- which is to say, a true believing member of the pack.
The irony, of course, is that it didn’t work, his campaign hit the wall, he ran out of money and was spotted more than once carrying his own suitcase to a coach flight in an effort to reignite his campaign. If you believe, as I do, that campaigns are important for the way in which they test a candidate’s mettle and character, McCain was tested, yet again, and he passed. He stopped pandering and went back to the straight talk that earned him my respect in the first place.
Meanwhile, the candidates who were supposed to beat him, the ones who conservatives favored over the guy they never quite trusted and knew they couldn’t control, found out what so many others have learned before: that presidential politics looks easy until you try it, that running for president is one of the toughest, most grueling, most unforgiving endeavors a sadist could dream up, even if it doesn’t look that way from the outside.
If Rudy Giuliani had never run, conservative chatterers would still be saying, “If only Rudy were in the race, he woulda/coulda/shoulda walked away with it.” Of course he was, and he didn’t. Ditto for Fred Thompson. Remember when he was going to be the conservative savior? By the time the votes were counted in South Carolina, all he wanted to do was go to sleep. Now he can.
Of course, it’s not over 'til it’s over. I’m still rooting for Mitt Romney. A millionaire Mormon from Massachusetts with no foreign policy experience would be preferable to the war hero from Arizona any day, even if McCain is older and poorer and definitely not as good looking. But I’m beginning to think that the Republicans might just, despite themselves, have settled on the candidate who will be toughest for Democrats to beat, precisely because his independent streak makes him more appealing to those in the middle than he might be to the true believers on the far right.
And they may do it a lot earlier in the process than Democrats do, which is always an advantage. A McCain nomination is not good news for the Blue Team, but it is for the country, which I’m still old-fashioned enough to believe is the most important thing.
Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for FOXNews.com.