A nightmarishly plausible scenario:
John McCain has made himself the early frontrunner for the GOP nod in 2008. Nobody can deny that, especially in the light of Bush’s capitulation on a torture ban yesterday.
The operative question will be, as it was in 2000: Can McCain navigate a series of Southern primaries dominated by hard-core Conservatives, largely Christian-activist?
This is a guy who’s defied his party on major issue after major issue, and who openly attacked Christian icons like Jerry Falwell in his final stand of 2000.
No way to be certain, and remember that this is undoubtedly McCain’s last trip up the mountain: he is not a young man, and being hung by your broken arm for days on end in your youth will age you prematurely in any event.
So if you’re McCain, you don’t — you can’t — leave this one to chance.
And so you need what you more or less despise: George Bush. In the same way that McCain saved Bush’s bacon when independent voters were flirting with Kerry in 2004 — when Abu Ghraib had Bush on the ropes — McCain will need Bush’s stamp of approval south of the Mason-Dixon line come January of 2008.
Hence the famous shots of the two hugging and making nice last cycle.
But if you’re Bush, what prompts you to work for McCain, or at least avoid opposing him? Seemingly nothing; you have no more elections to face, and let’s face facts — McCain gave you a real nasty political wedgy on this torture ban thing, a wedgy that went on for month after month after month.
And that really smarted.
So as much as anything you’d be inclined — if you’re Bush, a real stickler for winning and punishing people who prevent it — to actively undercut McCain in 2008. And with your rock-star quality in the deep South, as well as the inevitable nostalgia that envelops a departing two-term president (especially one who’s padlocked himself to 9/11), you could no doubt find another more conservative candidate and carry him bodily over the finish line.
Which would seem to make another Bush/McCain dust-up inevitable in 2008. Except for Jeb.
Little Brother isn’t on track to run this time out — he’d pay the price for Bush fatigue in the same way that Gore paid the price for Clinton fatigue. It would look too much like dynastic politics, and Americans will support a dynasty only as long as it’s careful to take a few years off every now and again.
But suppose John McCain agrees in advance to select Jeb as his running mate. This solves one of Bush’s problems — how to advance rather than hinder his brother’s presidential aspirations.
It allows Jeb to bask in the reflected glory of both his brother’s militarism and McCain’s, no small consideration for a Southern Governor without any significant military experience post-9/11.
It makes McCain a lock in the South: he’ll have the perfect VP candidate for religious conservatives, and he himself will sweep the Veteran vote. Given McCain’s own strength in the West, and his attraction for independents in the rest of the country, a McCain/Jeb ticket could make Reagan’s totals look anemic.
And no doubt McCain would think long and hard about a second term; chances are at least one in five he’d opt out after four years.
It makes a great deal of sense on paper. The question becomes: Could McCain stomach Jeb, and all of the extended Bush family dropping by for horseshoes and pork rinds on Fourth of July weekends? Could he stomach George W. hanging around the Oval Office looking wistful?
Even more crucially, could he stomach Barbara Bush continuing to tour disaster areas in order to point out the good fortune of the destitute?
Put it this way: Ronald Reagan didn’t have much of an appetite for Bush Sr., but he took Pappy on because when a man is looking at the last decades of his life, and one last shot at the Presidency, he’s more than likely to hold his nose and force it down.
Hence, these long-long-long-term predictions:
1) McCain runs in 2008; Jeb, after drumming up suitable speculation, does not.
2) George W. belatedly campaigns for McCain in South Carolina; it’s billed as the final healing of the wounds opened during the 2000 election, when operatives push-polled McCain with nasty stories about his adopted child.
3) McCain takes the GOP nomination in near-record time.
4) Jeb is added to McCain’s short list for VP, in a seemingly pro forma manner, but is quickly rumored to be the favorite; begins appearances on Good Morning America, etc., before the pick is final.
5) Democrats run _______ and _________ (insert any names here), but come up drastically short.
Can Democrats hope for nothing? Not to worry. We can always hope that deep down, in the dark secret petulant recesses of George W.’s heart — the place where he broods about the size of his father’s legacy as compared to his own — he doesn’t want his little brother to be President any more than we do.