“This country is in trouble. The world is in trouble. And we need some new, fresh, independent ideas to lead this country forward.”

Sounds a like the opening line from a presidential campaign announcement speech. And it may just be.

Or, perhaps, it is a line from a vice-presidential campaign announcement.

What it almost certainly is not, however, is the message you’d expect to hear from a sitting senator who plans to seek reelection next year.

So it goes on Chuck Hagel Watch, which is rapidly becoming the most unconventional beat in American politics.

Today’s indicators suggest that the renegade Republican solon from Nebraska is leaning toward launching an independent bid for national office.

Which office remains a matter of speculation.

Which party may be coming into focus. And here’s a hint: It is neither grand nor old.

Hagel met two weeks ago with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, another outsider Republican who has made little secret of his interest in stepping up the political ladder. Bloomberg has been exploring prospects for an independent run at the presidency for at least a year, even going so far as to make 2006 campaign appearances with an eccentric collection of non-New York candidates that included Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, a different breed of maverick who was reelected last fall as the candidate of a self-named third party but caucuses somewhat uncomfortably with the Senate Democrats.

Now, Hagel is openly speculating about a Hagel-Bloomberg ticket, or perhaps a Bloomberg-Hagel ticket running on an independent line next year, or perhaps on the line of the Unity08 movement. Unity08 is the multipartisan grassroots coalition that has for months been trying to forge what its spokesman, actor and Nation reader Sam Waterston, refers to as “a third force in the middle” to fix a system that he describes as having been “broken” by consultants, spin doctors and hyper-partisan Democrats and Republicans.

Bloomberg has openly flirted with the Unity08 crew.

Hagel, who has flirted with a Republican presidential bid, an independent presidential bid, a campaign for reelection on the GOP line or an exit from politics, now sounds as if he is reading from the Unity08 playbook.

The senator says his Republican party, the party “of Eisenhower, of Goldwater, of Reagan” has been “hijacked by a group of single-minded almost isolationists, insulationists, power-projectors.” He peppers his commentary — most recently on the CBS Sunday morning show “Meet the Press” — with that talk of “new, fresh, independent ideas.” And he says there is something appealing about “a New York boy and a Nebraska boy… teamed up leading this nation.”

No, that’s not an announcement. Just a big hint.

Bloomberg and Hagel still have a lot of differences to sort out.

The two men may be essentially on the same page regarding the Iraq imbroglio — both are critics of President Bush’s approaches, though Hagel is by far the more aggressive objector. But they have said very different things about U.S. relations with Israel. And when it comes to domestic policy, well, these guys are not just out of tune with one another, they are singing from different hymnals altogether. Bloomberg is a social liberal of the first order: pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-diversity, pro-strict separation of church and state, pro-gun control, pro-drug law reform, very friendly to immigrants and very open to raising tax rates when revenues are needed to maintain schools, public services and basic infrastructure. Hagel tends toward the other side of the debates on those issues.

Then, of course, there is the matter of who would top the Hagelberg ticket.

That said, Hagel really wants to be in the White House. And Bloomberg, a billionaire who can self-finance a national campaign, may be holding the best ticket. By the same token, Bloomberg also appears to be desirous of a 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue address, and he knows he could use a Midwesterner with military and legislative experience to broaden his appeal.

So the two men are talking, and hinting.

Bloomberg aides suggest that an in-or-out decision by the mayor won’t come before early next year.

Hagel says he’ll make some kind of announcement by late summer — although if his track record is any indication it may only be the declaration that he isn’t seeking a third term in the Senate.

For now, Hagel says, “I don’t forgo any options.”

Truer words have never been spoken by an American politician.


John Nichols’ new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders’ Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson hails it as a “nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe ‘heroic medicine’ that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to ‘reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'”