Agreeing to disagree in lovefest

May 10, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

PITTSBURGH -- Here's what Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain agreed on at their much-ballyooed "summit meeting" here: they agreed to disagree on any important differences that existed between them before the meeting began.

Governor Bush got the earlier avoided word "endorse" from Senator McCain's lips, not once but several times. Senator McCain got Governor Bush's unspoken assent in his declaration to Senator McCain supporters that he intends to continue to fight for the campaign reforms -- unspecified in their verbal lovefest -- he sought as a presidential candidate.

"I will not give up on the reform agenda," Senator McCain assured them, not handing over his sword to Governor Bush, but sheathing it for the time being. He said he looked forward to further discussions with Governor Bush on campaign reform.

In a cute dodge on their differences on campaign finance (Senator McCain wants to end all soft money, Governor Bush doesn't), the slick Texan reiterated his support of ending unregulated contributions by corporations and labor unions. He finessed the matter of soft money from individuals, except once again to push "paycheck protection," which would enable union members to veto use of union funds to back candidates they don't like -- a favorite GOP "poison pill" to scuttle serious campaign finance reform.

Senator McCain was his candid self in accepting a reporter's description of his endorsement of Governor Bush as "taking the medicine now" to get it out of the way. Governor Bush was his uncandid self, sidestepping a call to repudiate a warning from evangelist Pat Robertson that it would be "very dangerous" to pick Senator McCain as his running mate.

Senator McCain helpfully repeated he didn't want to be considered, and mentioned just about every other Republican he could think of for the honor.

The political ritual of kissing and making up after presidential primary combat is nothing new, though seldom has it played out with the fanfare afforded this one.

It is a measure of Senator McCain's immense personal popularity demonstrated in the GOP primary and sustained since by his post-primary travels and observations, all keeping him in the limelight while other presidential losers -- take Bill Bradley, for example -- have faded from view.

Senator McCain's objective, however, of translating that voter appeal into pressure on Governor Bush to accept stronger campaign finance reform did not seem to be satisfied in any significant way by their post-summit remarks. For all the outward attempts to convey comity, their continuing differences over this matter at the heart of Senator McCain's agenda suggest little more than agreeing to disagree on the issue.

Senator McCain's Straight Talk Political Action Committee is already well launched to pursue that agenda while focusing on helping Republican House and Senate candidates as his principal contribution to the party cause.

The most Governor Bush may gain from this focus is ginning up GOP enthusiasm generally and keeping Senator McCain channeled as a loyal foot soldier for the party.

Republicans as a party have a tradition of joining forces after the primaries, but there have been occasions when personal animosity has hindered this tradition.

Who can forget, for instance, the biting demand by Bob Dole on television on the night of his defeat in the 1988 New Hampshire primary that the elder George Bush "stop lying about my record." In 1976, too, Ronald Reagan's challenge to incumbent (but unelected) President Gerald Ford, and Mr. Reagan's half-hearted support of Mr. Ford in the fall campaign, were blamed by Ford insiders for their man's narrow loss to Jimmy Carter.

The Democrats, too, have had their share of post-primary conflict behind a veneer of party solidarity. After Ted Kennedy's failed challenge to Mr. Carter in 1980, he tried a convention ploy to unglue Mr. Carter's support, to no avail.

More famously, in 1968, loser Eugene McCarthy withheld his endorsement of Hubert Humphrey until the month before the election, a spiteful gesture that may have cost his fellow Democrat and fellow Minnesotan the election.

For now, Governor Bush and Senator McCain insist they have patched things up. The question is how Senator McCain's reform enthusiasts view the future of their cause, with their tiger seemingly pacified.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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