When President Bush talks about passing meaningful, bipartisan legislation in Washington, he almost certainly doesn't mean "bills sponsored by the Democrats and John McCain." But, if the Democrats get their way, that could turn out to be a pretty good definition of bipartisanship over the next four years.
As the Democrats begin pushing their legislative agenda through the Senate, the maverick Republican from Arizona is shaping up to be a key partner.
This week, for example, Senator McCain is drumming up support for a patients' bill of rights he is sponsoring with Democrats Edward Kennedy and John Edwards - in opposition to the White House's preferred version. He's also teaming up with Democrats on legislation supporting drug-patent reform and background checks at gun shows.
At some level, McCain's motive for joining forces with the Democrats may be personal, stemming from his bitter primary battle with Mr. Bush.
But his actions might also prove to be a shrewd political strategy, similar to that employed by President Bill Clinton: triangulation. By positioning himself between the GOP White House and the Democrats, McCain is casting himself as a centrist, appealing to the same band of independent voters who supported his 2000 presidential bid, and who could fuel an independent run in 2004.
As a senator, McCain's ability to shape the debate is far more limited than Mr. Clinton's. Moreover, he could still prove a useful ally to the president - especially if he helps create support among Democrats for items like a national missile defense or Social Security reform.
Even so, McCain's work with Democrats could be a big problem for the White House, in a year where every senator's vote counts. And it could force Bush to compromise further on his agenda - or risk ceding the center to his former rival.
McCain is effectively creating "another power center," says George Edwards, a political scientist at Texas A & M University in College Station. "It's going to be a problem for the White House.... Every time McCain is giving some Republican patina to a Democratic bill," he allows Democrats to claim they're the ones being bipartisan, and not Bush.
McCain's willingness to partner with the Democrats is somewhat surprising in the context of his legislative record. In the past, he has consistently ranked among the more conservative GOP members.
Those close to McCain suggest that his 2000 campaign helped shift his priorities. His presidential bid connected him with a national constituency of independent, and largely centrist, voters, whose reformist agenda includes issues such as campaign finance and a patients' bill of rights.
"It's the politics of the vital center," says Marshall Wittmann, a political analyst at the Hudson Institute here, and an informal McCain adviser. "What all these issues have in common is that there's a broad consensus in American political life that they need to get done."
Taking on these issues may also allow McCain to add to his relatively short list of legislative victories. The biggest triumph, of course, would be the passage of campaign-finance reform, his signature issue. While it has passed the Senate, the bill still faces strong opposition in the House from both parties.
If it passes, most experts say a presidential veto is unlikely, given the measure's popularity with the public. "If the White House vetoes that bill, I think they would only marginalize the Republican Party with independent voters," says Mr. Wittmann.
But some suggest that the White House may be trying to work out some sort of quid pro quo with McCain, promising not to work against his campaign-finance bill in exchange for his support on other issues.
In response to a question about possible behind-the-scenes dealmaking with McCain, a senior administration official asked to "pass."
Rep. Christopher Shays (R), McCain's House counterpart on campaign finance, says there's "no quid pro quo" between McCain and the White House. "Each issue stands on its own," he says. "But obviously, to the extent that trust can be built up between ... a very powerful senator and national figure and the president of the United States, the better it is for both of them," he adds.
Certainly, opposition from a popular senator from the same party can severely undermine a president, as Lyndon Johnson discovered when Sen. J. William Fullbright became an early foe of the Vietnam War.
But the damage can cut both ways. Already, McCain is facing criticism from party activists in his home state. A band of Arizona conservatives has even mounted a "recall campaign," hoping to force a new election for his seat.
This opposition from within his own party could become a serious hurdle if McCain attempts another presidential run in 2004.
McCain has recently cited as a role model Teddy Roosevelt, who broke from the Republican Party and ran against GOP president William Taft in 1912.
But while Roosevelt had a strong band of followers who left the party with him, says Professor Edwards, McCain's support within the Republican Party seems much weaker. Although he'd be an attractive third-party candidate, there's no evidence that enough Democrats or Republicans would abandon their parties for him to win.
"Republicans aren't unhappy with George W. Bush," Edwards says. "All the evidence indicates they're quite happy with him."
Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor