- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 6, 2001

American politics is getting strange; its going to get even stranger. First Sen. Jeffords left the Republican Party and delivered the Senate to the Democrats, and now Sen. John McCain is considering leaving the GOP. As the Marxists used to say: "This is not a coincidence, comrade." Nor is it a conspiracy. Rather, it is part of the inevitable response to what is now a decade-long stalemate between the Republican and Democratic Parties. It has been 13 years since an American president has received at least 50 percent of the vote. For the last seven years, the national Republican and Democratic vote for Congress has ranged between 51-49 percent and 50.1-49.9 percent.
But while the two parties draw almost the identical votes each election cycle, the number of voters who identify themselves as Independent or third party has gone up from about 23 percent in the early 1960s to over 35 percent today. It is arguable that Bill Clinton in 1992 and George W. Bush in 2000 won their elections because of the third party candidacies of, respectively, Ross Perot and Ralph Nader. One would have to go back to 1912s election of Woodrow Wilson to find a decisive third party candidacy (that time it was former President Teddy Roosevelt who split the Republican vote and denied incumbent William Howard Taft his re-election.)
It is noteworthy that since the 1960s the Democrats have shed most of their Southern conservatives, just as the Republicans have shed most of their Northern liberals. Mr. Jeffords is only the most recent and spectacular shedding. As the two parties have become more ideologically pure, the number of independent voters has increased by about 50 percent. Which brings us back to John McCain. What in the world has happened to John McCain?
Friends and supporters of Mr. McCain have been telling reporters that he is thinking of leaving the GOP and running for president as an Independent in 2004. He has carefully responded that he has no intention of nor cause to leave the party.
But he also has told other reporters that he might have cause to leave if his campaign-finance reform bill is defeated by Republicans and if moderate Republicans feel excluded from the GOP. Newsweek Magazine quotes GOP leaders, not for attribution, calling Mr. McCain an untrustworthy, media-obsessed crybaby. If this were a marriage, you would bet on a divorce.
I have known Mr. McCain casually for several years, and though I strongly disagree with many of his positions, I have never found him personally untrustworthy or a crybaby. And, he is no more obsessed with the media than the rest of us in the Washington herd of swine who would trample on the innocent to get our mugs on the tube. But whether he is those things or not really doesnt matter electorally. Why he seems to be making his move does matter. And boy is he moving.
Two years ago he was a solid conservative except for his then-quixotic support of campaign-finance restrictions. But since then he has opposed oil drilling in Alaska, sponsored a version of HMO changes that Mr. Bush and most Republicans oppose, co-sponsored a gun show loophole with Sen. Joe Lieberman, supported the Democratic Party/trial lawyer attacks on the tobacco industry and, most flamboyantly, he was one of only two Republicans who voted against Mr. Bushs tax cut.
With the exception of the tax-cut vote, those are all politically popular positions to take particularly if he has written-off the 30 percent of the electorate that is hard-core Republican. But there is a method in the tax cut vote, too. If the economy is healthy in 2004, Mr. Bush will have a strong chance to get re-elected; in which case running as either a Democrat or an Independent will not be very appealing. But if the economy falters and Mr. Bush is vulnerable, Mr. McCain will be on the record having opposed Mr. Bushs main economic legislation the tax cut.
Republicans are calling him cynical. They may be right, or he may have had a political epiphany on the road to the White House. Given his carefully established image as a straight-talking man, it probably wont hurt him with people who agree with those positions. If he has found a formula to appeal to 35 to 40 percent of the electorate in a three-way race, he could become our next president. Of course, no third party candidate has ever been elected president. And finding a winning percentage in the middle of the spectrum would seem to require pretty poor politicking by the Republican and Democratic candidates.
But there has never been as high a percentage of voters not committed to the two parties. Ross Perot, a deeply flawed candidate, blazed that trail in 1992. Mr. McCain, a man more obviously of presidential timber, ,just might have a chance. But to maximize his vote he will have to discard his anti-abortion stance. If you see him come out for the right to have an abortion, you will know he is running.


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