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Straight Talk Sidecar?

John McCain seems to prefer the campaign bus to his Senate seat. With a vice-presidential nod, he'll win if Bush wins. If Bush loses, he'll win even bigger.

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This summer, John McCain will turn 64. He has no possibilities for promotion in his job in the United States Senate, where his current term will expire when he is 68. Right now, he's chairman of the Commerce Committee, where he gets to run hearings so boring they rarely make C-span. He has no chance of ever getting a better chairmanship, and he's not even a member of Finance or Appropriations, so he has no real input on the big stuff like taxes and spending. If he ran for majority leader, he'd get one vote -- Trent Lott would get the rest. So in career terms, McCain is, in a word, stuck. And that's why he should give George W. Bush a chance to make a pitch about running as Bush's vice-presidential candidate.

McCain recently declared on Meet the Press that "I've said from the beginning, I would not, under any circumstances, consider being vice-president of the United States." Every presidential candidate has to turn down the No. 2 job during primary season -- it's part of being seen as presidential -- but that's strong language even by McCain's standards. Then again, he grew very fond of strong language during the primary campaign, and hasn't yet found his way back to the softer Senate-speak of his previous thirteen years.

Now it's time for McCain to think about what he wants to do with the rest of his professional life. One thing he clearly doesn't want is to be a mere senator. Once you've had your own press corps and your own Secret Service detail, it can be awfully hard to readjust to finding your spot in the Senate garage and crowding into the Senate subway a dozen times a day to get to the floor in time for the next roll-call vote.

McCain spent last week in Vietnam observing the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of Saigon, which just happened to be the perfect way to get himself on the Today show. It was a great opportunity for any senator, especially the Vietnam vets. But none of the others went, because most senators travel only when the Senate is in recess -- as it had been only one week before McCain's trip. Ever since 1988, when upstart Joe Lieberman beat liberal Republican Lowell Weicker for a Connecticut Senate seat by one percentage point by unfairly casting him as a lazy lawmaker who missed votes, senators have lived in abject fear of being gone at the wrong time. At the time, many lawmakers missed 5 percent of votes; now 99 percent attendance records are typical. Since McCain dropped out of the presidential race, his record has been, at best, that of a man who doesn't plan to run for reelection. At worst, it's that of a man who's lost interest.

So what's next? McCain can continue to make noise from the sidelines of the Bush-Gore contest. His confession that he lied about being unperturbed by the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina statehouse was the kind of comment that helps Gore -- which makes sense because a Gore victory is the only scenario that lets McCain run for president four years from now. Still, the best way for McCain to run next time around is to turn in a winning performance on a losing ticket -- one where the weakness was at the top. (Of course, if McCain performs as ineffectually as Jack Kemp did four years ago, that would end his career, as it did Kemp's.) If McCain makes Republicans regret his absence at the top of the ticket, they won't want to make that same mistake twice. In a losing campaign, George W. Bush's running mate could easily look better than Bush -- an opportunity McCain shouldn't give away to another aspiring president.

Not only would McCain get a place in history, he'd get a big house, a big plane, the kind of attention he's obviously developed a craving for, and all the travel time he could ever want.

If McCain does stiff-arm Bush on rejoining the campaign -- and if no amount of begging gets Colin Powell to accept the nomination -- the next name on the list will probably be that of Tom Ridge, the little-known governor of Pennsylvania, an important swing state. And if you think the media swooned for McCain, wait until you read a profile of Ridge, who's ten years younger but has more real governing experience than McCain. He also has a life story that's almost as worthy of a movie of the week: Ridge grew up working-class in Erie, Pennsylvania, got himself into Harvard, won a Bronze Star in Vietnam, worked as a prosecutor, successfully ran for Congress the same year McCain did, and -- after twelve years in the House -- came out of nowhere to win a big state governorship. Like Bush, Ridge won reelection in 1998 by a landslide. As governor, he's been even more successful at cutting taxes. On abortion, he's a Cuomo -- Catholic and pro-choice -- and the religious right has already signaled that it could live with him on the ticket.

The Republican who shouldn't live with Ridge on the ticket is McCain. If Ridge can agree to disagree with Bush on something as major as abortion, McCain should be able to see how easy it would be to bury his own hatchets with Bush and agree to disagree on something as minor as campaign-finance reform. For his part, Bush has wisely allowed well-publicized campaign leaks indicating that he's giving McCain serious consideration. He knows the primaries have proved that, aside from Powell, no one can help him more than McCain can. And Bush knows that paving over policy differences to build a bigger tent isn't hard. He watched his father call Ronald Reagan's policy "voodoo economics" one day, then accept his offer of the vice-presidency the next.

If McCain does join the ticket, the worst thing that can happen would be a Bush win. The Republican nomination wouldn't open up again until 2008 -- when McCain will be 72 -- but he'd still get at least four years to be vice-president. Not only would he get a place in history, he'd get a big house, a big plane, the kind of attention he's obviously developed a craving for, and all the travel time he could ever want. (Bonus: The vice-president's only official duty is casting tie-breaking votes in the Senate once or twice a year -- a voting schedule more to McCain's liking.) In the White House, Vice-President McCain would be something Senator McCain never has been -- a force to be reckoned with on any subject he chooses. If McCain lets this opportunity pass, he might soon become the Republican Gary Hart, a guy who pulled off a stunning upset in New Hampshire but never really mattered much again.


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