McCain's Choice: Dukakis or Gore?

12/12/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

To the victor go the spoils, and to the loser, well, what does go to the loser? In recent presidential elections it seems that there are two paths the loser can take -- one of public redemption and refusal to be cast as irrelevant (see: Gore, Al), and one of obsequious obscurity (see: Dukakis, Michael). Guess which path John McCain is likely to take?

Yet for McCain to stay relevant, he'll need to make some bold moves over the next four, if not more, years to reclaim much of the honor lost during this hard-fought election. As of right now, McCain has no base. Not the right-wing Evangelicals he so desperately courted, not the few remaining fiscal conservatives he sold out for his shot at the crown, not the centrist Democrats who were originally supposed to be his ticket to victory, and certainly not the media, who in recent months have shown that perhaps while hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, a press corp repeatedly treated like a gaggle of idiots and lepers is capable of some fire, too. Alas, having lost the trust of however million Americans who voted for him, and the respect of nearly every American who didn't, McCain has been left behind to rue the day he ever heard the name Barack Hussein Obama, while history marches on double time without him.

How, then, can McCain be a Gore and not a Dukakis? Well, while Obama did indeed reclaim the White House for the Democrats, the other two branches of government are not quite fully-controlled by the party (and in the case of the Judicial Branch, not even close), and could cause not only a lot of headaches for the incumbent president, but for the American people too. Make no mistake -- the air is still sour in Washington, and despite Obama's calls for change and a move beyond partisan politics, you can bet without a filibuster-proof senate majority that once his grand schemes hit the Hill, many will be cut off at the knees, if not the neck. Times like these call for, dare I say, a maverick senator who votes from his head and his heart, and not by his political allegiances. With no chance of running for higher office again, McCain doesn't need to be in lock step with a party that until very recently he hated, and who in turn hated him. In short, John McCain is in a surprisingly enviable position: he owes nothin' to nobody.

The Dems will need a few Republicans to move across the aisle and join them on those particularly tricky pieces of legislation, and McCain could be one of those brave souls. And as if the potential for a political resurrection wasn't enough of a draw, luckily for him, some of the important issues that will soon be up for debate include the scaling back of unprecedented Executive powers, opening up stem cell research, reaffirming our commitment not to torture prisoners, saving the environment, cleaning up political cronyism, and rebooting the economy, all subjects that he already has (or had before the election) decent to good records on.

Moreover, now that McCain need not keep one eye on the presidency, he'll have more time to work on pet issues, especially those that could really use a helping hand from a man who will still wield a bit of power and influence, if only behind the scenes. The care of wounded and returning military veterans will only grow in importance over the next four years as Obama (hopefully) scales back our involvement in at least one war, if not two, and McCain happens to sit in a unique position of authority on the issue. With his help, it could become the serious national concern it should be, and he could become a champion of the underdog yet again.

At the age of seventy-two, most Americans would be figuring out how to gracefully retire, if they had not already done so years before. If McCain's up for it, and his tireless campaigning seems to suggest he is, he could instead be turning the page on an entirely new stage of his life. In the end, Barack Obama's win may have handed John McCain the keys he needed, if not necessarily wanted.