Pandering a path to the 2008 election

Published April 2, 2006

What are we to make of the strange mating dances going on in Republican politics?

Sen. John McCain, who not so long ago denounced the Rev. Jerry Falwell as an agent of "intolerance," has lately been cozying up to the conservative preacher. The two met recently, and Falwell has suggested that McCain, once lost, may be on the road to redemption.

McCain is a maverick Republican who has been more popular with Democrats and independents than with GOP conservatives. Will Falwell's flock forgive him for standing with Democrats against President Bush on tax cuts and torture? Or for defending Democrat John Kerry in 2004 against the swift boat ads attacking his Vietnam War record?

Miracles happen, I guess.

And what about Senate Republican leader Bill Frist, a Harvard-trained heart surgeon who made a fool of himself last year in the Terri Schiavo circus on Capitol Hill? Now he has broken ranks with the president and his own GOP caucus to become a champion of tough new laws to crack down on illegal immigration.

The behavior of Frist and McCain, rivals for their party's 2008 presidential nomination, is part of a demeaning political spectacle known as courting your party's "base," or core constituencies. It causes presidential wanna-bes to say and do things that, more often than not, diminish their credibility as candidates. The conventional political thinking is that candidates have no choice because the presidential primary process is dominated by activists on the left (Democrats) and the right (Republicans). Maybe so, but does this courting ritual have to be so nauseating?

There apparently is nothing Bill Frist won't say or do to score points with his party's right wing, especially religious conservatives. His first big sop to the religious right was Frist's statement on the Senate floor that, contrary to what numerous medical experts had said, Terri Schiavo was not in a "persistent vegetative state." Frist said he based his professional opinion on a short video tape of the brain-damaged woman lying in her hospice bed. His opinion, as it turned out, did not comport with autopsy results. If Frist really believed that, he should have his medical license yanked. Frist recently told the Washington Post that he "probably misread things a little bit on Schiavo."

Last week Frist rushed to the front of the immigration debate, an issue that threatens party unity in an election year that has Republicans running scared. Once again, Frist veered to the right, proposing legislation that would crack down on illegal border crossings without including the guest worker program that President Bush and many Senate Republicans support.

Frist's approach is all crackdown and no compassion, which he believes will play well with his party's base.

Some Republicans complain that Frist is putting his presidential ambitions ahead of his responsibilities as their Senate leader. In throwing his own bill into the hopper, Frist has made it more difficult for Republicans to achieve a consensus on immigration policy.

Immigration could be this year's stink bomb for Republicans. The divisive political debate raging in Congress could cost Republicans support among Hispanic voters, a group that neither party can afford to ignore. At a news conference last week, some House Republicans denounced protesters for flying the Mexican flag in Los Angeles and said prisoners instead of illegal workers should be used to pick America's crops. Do they think we should also use prisoners to clean hotel rooms, do tile work and care for our children?

Meanwhile, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the presumed front-runner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, has a different problem with her base. Instead of pandering to her party's liberal constituencies, including antiwar activists, labor unions and minorities, she is distancing herself from them on some controversial issues.

Clinton is a hawk who supports the war in Iraq and has called for increasing the number of U.S. troops on the ground, a position that has infuriated her party's antiwar activists. She also supports legislation to make desecration of the American flag a crime, and more recently, she was a leading demagogue in the congressional debate that killed the Dubai ports deal.

I suppose the center is as far right as Clinton can go since there is no Democratic right. But who knows? If she is the Democratic nominee in 2008, we shouldn't be surprised if she turns up at Jerry Falwell's church one Sunday morning.

Philip Gailey's e-mail address is gailey@sptimes.com