frank_talk (2007-01)

Lousy Choices

Don’t presidential candidates already make you sick?

U.S. Sen. John McCain came to a Lincoln Day dinner in East Tennessee shortly before the 1994 elections. He had not yet run for president and was merely a war hero, a former POW and a backbench member of the U.S. Senate. I don’t remember much about his speech—it was standard rubber chicken accompaniment.

I do remember a local fellow jumping to the microphone as McCain was receiving applause from his speech. The gentleman announced an upcoming dedication of a Vietnam memorial and urged the crowd to encourage the senator to promise to return for the dedication.

It was obviously an ambush, and the usual response by the public figure is to smile and say they would hope to be able to return. Then later, send word they can’t.

But McCain just stood there. His ice blue eyes focused like a laser beam. You could see the local fellow shrinking before your eyes. After an awkward silence the fellow slunk off the stage and McCain sat down. It was an example of McCain’s famous temper, talked about in Republican circles, but never seen during his frequent media appearances. There, he is all joviality, reasonableness and earnestness.

Virtually every conservative Republican I know hates McCain. Yes, he is pro-life, supports gun rights and is strong on defense. Why there is such antipathy is something of a mystery. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is wrong on all the issues, according to conservative doctrine, but conservatives love the guy.

I’ve always liked McCain. I supported him in the primaries in 2000. I thought he was badly served by the Republican establishment that year, especially in South Carolina where phone banks told voters he has a screw loose due to his POW days. Lately, McCain shows up at the top of polls for the Republican nominee in the 2008 presidential sweepstakes. Given the Republican establishment’s tendency to unite behind a candidate they think can win, they may decide to hold their noses and support him.

I wish McCain had won in 2000. I wonder what would have happened had he been elected instead of George Bush.

But this isn’t 2000. Ronald Reagan was elected president at the ripe old age of 69 and his age was an issue throughout his presidency. Reagan handled it with humor, saying he wouldn’t exploit Walter Mondale’s youth and inexperience. Should McCain be elected in 2008 he will be 72. About a month after he is sworn in he will be 73. If he serves two terms in office he will leave office at the age of 80.

The media, which hated Reagan, harped on his age. But since they love McCain they rarely bring it up. I think it’s the media’s adoration of McCain that puts so many conservatives off. They just can’t trust a guy who is on good terms with television anchors and the editorial boards of the New York Times and the Washington Post .

If McCain does get nominated (I think it’s a big if), he stands a good chance of being elected. The Democratic Party seems destined to commit electoral suicide by choosing U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton as the nominee. Are the American people ready for Bush, Clinton, Bush and now Clinton again? Are there not other people in this country capable of serving? Can we all just agree the Clintons and the Bushes should just go away?

Few Democrats seem willing to stand up and ask why they should nominate someone who has negative ratings in the 40 percent range. Can any candidate run a national race when you know almost half the people will not vote for them under any circumstance? That means you have to get everybody else.

That explains the excitement surrounding the flavor of the month, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, who has served two years in the U.S. Senate. It’s as if Democrats are searching for anybody, rather than the senator from New York.

Obama may serve as a placeholder to prevent Clinton being the inevitable choice. That may allow for cooler heads in Iowa and New Hampshire to turn to someone like John Edwards.

If I had to place a bet right now the 2008 race will be McCain against Edwards, though I still can’t believe Republican primary voters will choose McCain. But there may not be anyone else with the money and organization.

Hillary Clinton has all the charm of an Al Gore, the personality traits of Richard Nixon and the social makeover ambitions of Lyndon Johnson. If the Democrats nominate her, it will be a disaster. A Clinton nomination could elect McCain, a man whose time has passed.

What is it about this country that our choices for president, at this juncture, are so limited? Another Clinton? The inexperienced Obama? The elderly McCain?

It seems, more and more, that anyone we would want to be president doesn’t have a chance and the people who do have a chance scare the hell out of us.

Was it always this way?

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at frank@frankcagle.com .