Is the half-hidden message of the 2006 campaign season that in the presidential showdown in 2008 we’ll have Senator John McCain running as both a Republican and a Democrat? It would certainly sweep away any remaining doubts that there is any difference between the two major parties. And maybe it would open up some space for outside challengers, assuming all vociferous opponents have not by that time been arrested and stuck behind barbed wire in an internment camp.

What candidate would be more appropriate as the next Commander in Chief than the mad ex-POW who now serves as Arizona’s senior senator? McCain, don’t forget, was under consideration by his senatorial colleague Democrat John Kerry to be his running mate in 2004 before Kerry picked John Edwards, whose prime distinction is that he is married to Elizabeth Edwards, the only Democrat I’ve seen in recent times to display any of the qualities one might hope for in a Democratic presidential nominee.

McCain is obviously aware of his impending responsibilities as the fusion candidate. As Congress prepared its craven assent to President Bush’s destruction of habeas corpus with the Military Commissions Act, he was one of three Republican senators who raised a bleat of protest. True, as is always the case with McCain, it was a very brief bleat, but as against the complaisance of Democrats like Joe Biden (who chortled that the Democrats would be happy to sit on the sidelines as the Constitution thumped into the trash bin) this counts as a lion’s roar.

Even the word “bleat” is a fierce overstatement of the noise raised by any senator, including McCain, as Bush finally junked legal restrictions on the role of the military in domestic law enforcement, a deed consummated with his signature on the same day, October 17, that he signed the Military Commissions Act, which permits warrantless incarceration and torture of suspected terrorists.

Speaking of what is now Public Law 109-364, Senator Pat Leahy whispered into the Congressional Record September 29 that he had “grave reservations about certain provisions” of the bill. The language of these provisions, Leahy said, “subverts solid, longstanding posse comitatus statutes that limit the military’s involvement in law enforcement, thereby making it easier for the President to declare martial law.”

At least when the Military Commissions Act was striding through Congress, the press did demurely note the fact, albeit without alarm sirens, that habeas corpus is headed toward a display case in the Smithsonian. The only story I’ve seen on the significance of Public Law 109-364 came from Frank Morales, on Uruknet, describing its license for the President “to declare a ‘public emergency’ and station troops anywhere in America, taking control of state-based National Guard units…in order to ‘suppress public disorder.'”

Does McCain’s latest statement on the war in Iraq–a call for 20,000 fresh US troops to be sent there–square with the Democrats’ position on the war? The answer to this is, of course, that the Democrats don’t have a position on the war beyond the de facto one of trying to make sure no peacenik candidates slip past the guard post supervised by Rahm Emanuel, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Like the American people overall, the majority of ordinary Democrats want US forces to quit Iraq in the immediate or relatively near future. This was not the posture of Democratic candidates, particularly in tight races. Most of them have talked about withdrawal as a matter of many months. The Democratic leadership would sign on to a McCain beef-up plan in minutes, flailing away at Bush for the next two years for losing the war. For the left position we’ll probably have to wait for the commission headed by James Baker or a mutiny by the generals, who are aware–just as they told Representative John Murtha this time last year–that the war is a bust and it’s time to quit.

Campaign 2006 has shown us clearly enough that the outer limit of popular sanction is the ability to lodge a formal protest on election day. Such protest can have actual consequences only in the very few remaining Congressional districts not gerrymandered into permanent incumbency or rotted out with vote fraud. Mostly the voters seem to have felt that both parties are pretty awful, but as the outfit that’s been running the country without opposition for six years the Republicans deserve to get a kick in the pants.

The fact that this protest is purely formal is attested by the adamant refusal of the Democrats to offer anything by way of substantive alternative, beyond saying that Bush is an incompetent fellow. Indeed, the substantive effect of Campaign 2006 has been to state in terms plain enough for a simpleton to understand that resistance is futile, since both Republicans and Democrats agree that the Bill of Rights is a dead letter and that wars must go on, and jobs disappear, despite overwhelming popular disagreement with such policies.

Pick a topic–the war, the economy, a 2 million-plus prison population, the environment, the condition of organized labor, the Constitution. Can you recall any Democrat this fall having said something on such a topic suggesting that in the event Democrats recapture the House or the Senate or both, anything of consequence might occur?

The week before polling day the New York Times had a story about the business lobby’s plans to sweep away all irksome laws and regulations passed in the wake of the Enron and WorldCom scandals. Did anyone cry, “That’s just the kind of corporate villainy we need the Democrats to guard us from!” Of course not. It would be as unrealistic as to hope that a Congress controlled in both chambers by Democrats would simply vote to deny Bush the money for the war in Iraq.

As things stand in organized politics today a purely formal protest is the most we can hope for, and the significance of this fall’s campaign is that no one has pretended otherwise.