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Death, Taxes and McCain?

By Jed Babbin

Trust me: I checked. Next year isn't 2008, it's only 2007. And for all the talk that the results of the presidential nomination contests are foreordained, history teaches us that early proclamations of the "inevitability" of a nomination are as reliable as French honor.

Those with fewer gray hairs won't remember the "inevitability" of former New York mayor John Lindsay's vice presidential aspirations in 1968. He would, we were told, appeal to urban liberals and balance perfectly the somber conservatism of Richard Nixon. I wasn't old enough to vote in 1968, but even I sensed that Lindsay's persona wasn't a good fit with Nixon's. It wasn't. Spiro Agnew's was. After which there was a parade of "inevitables" from Edmund Muskie (before he cried) to Gary Hart (before the aptly named yacht "Monkey Business" figured prominently in his life). And wasn't it only four years ago when Howard Dean was the inevitable Democratic nominee who would bring George Bush down? Which brings us to John McCain and Hillary Clinton.

In 2008 John McCain could well capture the Republican nomination for the same reason that Bob Dole did in 1996. Regardless of his chances against Bill Clinton, Republicans gave the nod to Dole because he'd earned it by long service to his party. It was his "turn." McCain, by staunch campaigning in 2000 for the election of the man who defeated him in the primaries worked to earn what Dole had in the same way. By working hard for George Bush again in 2004 and for his party's congressional candidates in 2006, McCain has amassed a huge stack of political chips among party leaders and back benchers. He wants people to believe that 2008 is his "turn", no matter how he stacks up against his Republican competition or against his likely Democratic opponent. That could be enough to get major donors to commit to him early and hogtie enough Republican state organizations to pre-empt a competitive primary race. But McCain is mercurial. And when the heat is on, he often lashes out.

McCain has been a media darling ever since he grandstanded his "anti-torture" amendment in faux opposition to the Bush administration's policy (which didn't allow torture, a practice that was illegal years before McCain's amendment). As McCain gains momentum toward '08, his former media friends will be tossing him in the same frying pan as all the other potential nominees. All it will take is one big explosion of the McCain temper and those same former friends will be writing editorials and op-eds comparing him to Captain Queeg. McCain has a very long way to go before he's locked up anything. And so does Sen. Clinton.

Hillary Clinton's sand castle stardom was nearly toppled by the first Obama wave. He makes one trip to New Hampshire (how many times has she been there since 1992?) and he polls within one point of her. Her "inevitability" is as fragile as the White House crockery she tossed at her husband on more than one occasion. Even if voters discounted her enormous negatives - and her wins in New York prove that some will - her vote-getting ability in a hotly-contested national race is in doubt. Her two elections in New York were hardly competitive. (If Republicans weren't abandoning Blue States, they could have forced Clinton into a serious and possibly close race. But they were, and they didn't). She's counting on the same kind of luck that carried her husband into the White House twice.

In 1992, Lawrence Walsh and Ross Perot won the election for Bill Clinton. Four days before the election, Special Prosecutor Walsh - clearly seeking to torpedo Bush's chances -- leaked a note about Bush's supposed involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal. As then-CBS News anchor Dan Rather reported that night, "There is new written evidence tonight concerning what President Bush knew -- and when he knew -- about the secret deal that sent some of America's best missiles to Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini. The Grand Jury evidence raises new questions about whether Mr. Bush is telling the truth." The media took Walsh's hand-off and ran with it, pounding Bush relentlessly in the few last days of the campaign.

George H.W. Bush campaigned like a man in a daze against an opponent who dazzled. But despite that, in the days before the election, Mr. Bush was rising fast, had caught Clinton (Clinton's aides admit thinking, before the Walsh memo, that all was lost). Bush 41 should have won and would have won but for the Walsh leak and Ross Perot's siphoning votes. In 1996, Bob Dole (beset by a campaign staff that didn't believe in him) ran what may have been the worst campaign ever. Bush 41 looked like a comet compared to Dole. Sen. Clinton's invincibility is a myth built on those campaigns and her even more easily won senate races. Before she gets into a real race, she has to overcome a problem she and the first-term Illinois senator share: neither of them has anything they can point to as a qualification to be president.

Mrs. Clinton has never governed, commanded or even managed anything larger than her Senate staff. The only time she was placed in charge of anything was when President Clinton appointed her to chair his task force on health care reform which promptly crashed and burned because its structure and operation violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act (a law known only to some of us who had been constrained by it while in government.) The presidency would be on-the-job training for her. As it would be for Mr. Obama, whose only "job" outside of government was as a community activist. Voters and big-dollar donors will wonder if either of them is capable of running against a qualified and determined Republican. Not that there are many of them.

Americans seem preternaturally interested in a presidential contest that won't take place for another 23 months. The media - having to feed the beast called "24/7" - are spending every moment not consumed by the war or the latest celebrity criminal trial on the ups and downs of all the likely candidates. We're having too much fun with this to let anyone win yet, so we won't.

Meanwhile, whenever someone says so-and-so is the inevitable nominee, sit back, relax and think of Howard Dean.

Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is a contributing editor to The American Spectator and author of Showdown: Why China Wants War with the United States (with Edward Timperlake, Regnery 2006) and Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe are Worse than You Think (Regnery 2004).

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