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COLUMN

A Third-Party Run for McCain

Michael J. Ring

Former presidential juggernaut John McCain has decided to focus his energies this summer and fall on helping Republicans keep control of the Congress after this November’s elections.

That’s an unusual -- and disappointing --tactic for someone whose pet project of campaign finance reform garners more Democratic than Republican votes, and for someone who, during the primaries, resisted the siren song of proposing a massive tax cut.

Of course, no one (except maybe George W. Bush) has accused McCain of being a Democrat -- not with his pro-military, pro-life, pro-gun voting record.

John McCain’s politics don’t fit well into the mainstream of either party, which is exactly why he should fire up the Straight Talk Express for a third-party run.

Third parties have become an afterthought in American politics, and this columnist is not below having a few pokes at the more esoteric candidates [“The Other Candidates,” January 19]. But in all seriousness, a strong independent challenge is just what the country needs right now.

Consider the two men the major parties have decided to lay before us this November. One has uncontrollable urges to exaggerate and embellish his alleged involvement in everything from the Internet to Love Story. Like his boss, Al Gore seems willing only to take baby steps in forming new policy from health care to the environment, an issue on which Al Gore was once one of the most trustworthy politicians in America. The vice-president has put his soul into new campaign-finance reform proposals, a curious change-of-heart for the man who visited the infamous Buddhist temple.

Of course, the Republican establishment has found a way to make Gore look credible on campaign finance -- it nominated George W. Bush, whose handle from the corporate fatcats is $70 million and climbing. Here is a candidate who chose to mask his hard-right views with “compassion” until it became politically convenient to drop that notion, who courts the vote of bigots and hatemongerers and only apologizes for getting caught doing so, who claims to be a “reformer with results” when on his signature issue, education, his state ranks 45th or below in many key indices. Some results, wouldn’t you say?

Looking at these two peas in a pod, it’s hard not to hunger for the refreshing honesty of McCain. Here is a candidate who says what he means and means what he says. Few people agree with all his proposals, but most agree with some of them and admire his forthrightness on issues where they and the senator disagree. Of the candidates in this year’s primaries, only McCain showed he could appeal to Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike. John McCain is a candidate who can reform politics and appeal to a wide range of Americans -- an argument the major-party nominees cannot make.

A McCain third-party run would also help build an alternate power to the Democrats and Republicans in American politics. Polls taken just after McCain left the race showed McCain commanded 25 percent of the vote in a Gore-Bush-McCain matchup -- a sizable percentage for a third-party candidate that early in the race.

McCain, a powerful advocate for change in the business of politics and campaigns, would fit naturally on the Reform Party ticket. The Arizona senator would help save the party from itself, which is rapidly degenerating into a cult of personality and in danger of losing what credibility in has left.

The Reform Party will likely nominate either one of two candidates -- Ross Perot or Pat Buchanan -- for president this year. Buchanan tries to make a pitch at reform, condemning the practices of both major parties, but ultimately he is far from the ideal messenger as his campaigns are divisive rather than conciliatory and he is dogged by his own statements of intolerance. Perot did win almost 20 percent of the vote in 1992, but he captured less than half that four years ago and would probably do even worse this year. Perot has been marginalized to the caricature of crazy Texas billionaire, and the iron grip he keeps on the party machinery to serve his own interests (see how Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura was chased out of the party) boosts his own ego but does no good for America.

But McCain has already shown he can build a political coalition from rubble. With his name at the top of the party, the Reform Party becomes instantly credible when recruiting candidates for other office. A strong Reform Party can even act as a regional second party in areas where one of the major parties is very weak, with its candidates providing checks and balances to incumbents who are now perennially unopposed.

A third-party campaign would have tremendous risks for McCain. He would almost assuredly be stripped of his chairmanship of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. It would also obliterate any chance of winning Republican support for a run in 2004 -- something which is certainly in the back of McCain’s mind given the heavy wounds inflicted on Bush. But McCain is one who’s never been afraid of taking risks -- making him the perfect candidate to try this bold step.

But four years of either Bush’s or Gore’s leadership would guarantee continued partisan sparring and bickering in Washington at a time when a president who can foster unity is needed now more than ever. John McCain was the candidate who in the primaries demonstrated he could unite Americans of different political ideologies. He should save us all from a sickening election this November.