Civil rivals: Obama, McCain meet to talk 

With the 2008 election far behind and a new political pragmatism all the rage in Washington, two former rivals sat down privately at the White House Wednesday to hash out a few things.

President Obama and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, his 2008 Republican opponent, have in the past two years gone from persistent, bristling offense to -- not warmth, exactly. But no longer open hostility.

Their Oval Office meeting Wednesday was not their first encounter since Obama defeated McCain in the election. During the lame-duck session of Congress, the two conferred over key White House priorities McCain was opposing, and they met after the election in Chicago.

More recently, McCain wrote an op-ed praising Obama's handling of the aftermath of the Tucson massacre, a gesture that led directly to Wednesday's sit-down.

The meeting had no set agenda -- political, topical or otherwise.

"There's a whole host of issues that, you know, ranging from certainly domestic to foreign policy, that I anticipate the two will discuss," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

Gibbs noted that during Obama's recent State of the Union address, McCain was one of a very few lawmakers clapping when Obama called for a ban on earmarks.

"I disagree with many of the president's policies, but I believe he is a patriot sincerely intent on using his time in office to advance our country's cause," McCain wrote in his January op-ed.

It was not always thus. During last year's health care debate, the two had an infamous encounter at a White House town hall meeting, when McCain used the forum to criticize his host.

"We're not campaigning anymore," a testy Obama told McCain. "The election's over."

McCain responded, "I'm reminded of that every day."

So has the rift healed? Is Mac back with Barack? Joe Tuman, a political scientist at San Francisco State University, called the meeting "more than just optics," noting there isn't much McCain can do for Obama, politically.

"I think his recent return to his maverick roots are real," Tuman said, invoking a term from McCain's 2008 campaign. "I think at this point in McCain's life and career, he is interested in something a little more substantive."

McCain last year won re-election to a fifth term in the Senate. But a primary challenge drew McCain further to the right than McCain treaded during his presidential campaign, and he frequently criticized Obama during that race.

But ensconced back in the Senate, McCain is sounding more like his old self. John Fortier, a political scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said there is overlap on the agendas of McCain and the newly centrist Obama.

"The one thing people forget about McCain is that he has always been a very big spending-deficit-earmarks hawk," Fortier said. "So in that respect it's been very natural for him to oppose Obama."

The president, confronted with a new political reality after his party's November "shellacking," is a more recent convert to the virtues of deficit cutting, earmark reform and spending freezes.

"All of these people have been dancing around this bipartisan business, no one is absolutely sure how sincere they are," said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution. "On a lot of things these two have disagreed vigorously, but they could also do it civilly."

jmason@washingtonexaminer.com

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Julie Mason

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