Last week’s Senate compromise that averted a showdown over filibustered judicial nominees was actually the opening salvo of the 2008 presidential campaign, several veteran political observers say.
The unexpected consequence of the filibuster compromise is to give a boost to the presidential prospects of Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican.
“Allen was very vocal in support of changing the rules to eliminate the filibuster of judicial nominees and took the right position in condemning the compromise,” said Free Congress Foundation President Paul M. Weyrich.
Conservatives have strongly condemned the compromise as a politically motivated gambit by Arizona Sen. John McCain, key Republican broker in the deal that ensured confirmation of three of President Bush’s nominees to federal appeals courts.
“George Allen is helped to the extent that the other potential [Republican] nomination competitors are not helped,” said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. “Allen was on the right side and said the right things.”
The compromise — supported by six other Republican senators — negated Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s demand for up-or-down votes on all of the Bush nominees. Mr. Frist, Tennessee Republican, is an early favorite of many religious and social conservatives looking ahead to the 2008 presidential campaign.
With Mr. McCain alienating the conservatives who dominate Republican primary voting, and by making Mr. Frist look like an ineffective leader, the filibuster compromise helped Mr. Allen by default.
“McCain is now dead meat, and Frist is hurt,” said Mr. Weyrich.
Mr. McCain was Mr. Bush’s chief rival for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination and had been seen as the leading contender for 2008, since Vice President Dick Cheney has said he will not seek the presidency. But Mr. McCain’s central role in crafting the compromise could prove fatal to his hopes.
“Conservatives who are unhappy with this compromise are going to blame McCain, not Frist,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
Morton Blackwell, a Virginia Republican and member of the national party’s executive committee, also said Mr. McCain will be the chief target of Republican wrath. “Nobody in his right mind could blame Frist for the actions of John McCain, who has further alienated our party’s voter base,” he said.
Mr. Frist’s base of support remains strong, said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. “I don’t think Frist is wounded — betrayed by McCain and a few of his other Republican senators, but not wounded, not among social conservatives,” he said.
But Mr. Keene said the compromise did serious damage to Mr. Frist’s credibility.
“Frist is the loser in that he has demonstrated an inability to hold his own majority together,” said Mr. Keene. “But out in the country and among the Republican base, he will be viewed as someone who at least tried.”
“Frist is hurt to the extent he had an opportunity to be seen as a hero to the conservative movement and that opportunity was taken away from him by John McCain,” said Mr. Weyrich.
The compromise was hailed as a victory by Democrats, and many conservatives questioned Mr. McCain’s motives in recruiting other Republican senators to join an ad-hoc coalition — now derided by some critics as ?the Seven Dwarfs? — in support of the deal.
“McCain could not bear to see Frist as the big winner, so he got his buddy [South Carolina Sen.] Lindsey Graham and [Ohio Sen.] Mike DeWine involved in this,” Mr. Weyrich said. “That’s what this is all about.”
Some conservatives who distrust Mr. McCain said they are concerned that, in a large 2008 primary field where several candidates divide conservative voters among them, Mr. McCain will emerge as the Republican nominee by default.
One veteran of the Reagan administration who is now a leading social conservative activist said privately that the compromise might signal Mr. McCain’s abandonment of his White House ambitions.
“This deal says to me McCain is not running,” the activist said. “I don’t see how you go into the Republican presidential primaries and have this level of anger aimed at you by the Republican base — by the people who man the polls and stuff the envelopes for the candidate.”
However, with more than two years remaining before the 2008 campaign begins in earnest, future events — especially the confirmation battles over any future Bush appointees to the Supreme Court — will affect the political impact of the filibuster compromise.
“What will matter for Frist is where we go from here,” said Wendy Wright, senior policy director for Concerned Women for America. Mr. Frist may yet emerge as a conservative hero, she said, “if the president makes Supreme Court appointments and the Democrats filibuster them, and Frist succeeds in getting a filibuster rules change.”
And Mr. McCain may yet make peace with the GOP’s conservative base, said Republican consultant Cleta Mitchell, if Democrats break the agreement by filibustering Mr. Bush’s future judicial nominees — and thereby prompt Mr. McCain to join conservatives in backing a Senate rule change to require a floor vote for nominees.
“Then McCain might not look so bad to some of the Republican base,” Mrs. Mitchell said.