Forget about John McCain and Chuck Hagel.
If you are looking for a maverick Republican in the Senate, consider Oregon Senator Gordon Smith.
Smith made headlines last December when he bitterly denounced the Bush administration's management of the Iraq war on the Senate floor.
"I, for one, am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets in the same way being blown up by the same bombs day after day," said the moderate senator who faces reelection next year. "That is absurd. It may even be criminal. I cannot support that any more. I believe we need to figure out not just how to leave Iraq but how to fight the War on Terror and to do it right."
Predictably, Smith's use of the word "criminal" garnered a lot of attention.
Republicans were furious with the senator. Democrats were delighted on one hand – it is always good to have a member of the president's party unleash on the White House – but frustrated on another, since Smith poke at the president made it harder dismiss him as "just another Republican" going into the 2008 election season. (So far, no serious Democratic challenger has emerged for Smith who, in a poll of likely Oregon voters released this week, enjoyed a 57 percent approval rating among Republicans and a 55 percent approval rating among Democrats.)
Skeptics questioned whether Smith, who voted to authorize Bush to attack Iraq and generally supported the war until last year, was just spouting off or had experienced a fundamental change of heart. After all, aside from the "c" word, Smith's comments were not all that much more condemnatory of the White House's approach in the Middle East than those of Hagel, the Nebraska Republican who frequently compares the Iraq quagmire to the Vietnam war but who can never be counted on to vote for an exit strategy.
On Thursday, however, Smith distinguished himself by going beyond rhetoric.
When the Senate voted on a plan advanced by Senate Democratic leaders to try and begin a troop withdrawal from Iraq within 120 days in Iraq – with a goal of getting all U.S. troops out by March 2008 – Smith was the sole Republican to cast an anti-war vote.
The measure that was considered by the Senate needed 60 votes to pass. It got just 48 – those of 46 Democrats, Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders and Smith.
Two Democratic senators, Nebraska's Ben Nelson and Arkansas's Mark Pryor, voted with 47 Republicans and Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman to block the measure.
Hagel, for all his bluster, voted for the president's position.
McCain was too busy campaigning for president to show up for the vote.
Smith was the only Republican maverick in the chamber.
Smith explained that, while he was not entirely in agreement with the Democratic plan, he felt it was necessary to send an anti-war message.
"Setting specific dates for withdrawal is unwise, but what is worse is remaining mired in the quicksand of the Sunni-Shia civil war," said Smith. "It is imperative that we continue to pressure the Iraqi government to govern."
Notably, on the same day that he voted against the administration on the war, Smith also broke with the White House on the question of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's future.
Gonzales is at the center of a burgeoning scandal over the firing of U.S. Attorneys who would not mount politically-motivated prosecutions. While President Bush is expressing confidence in his Attorney General, Smith said that Gonzales had lost the confidence of the Congress.
Asked by USA Today whether the embattled Gonzales should quit, Smith said, "For the Justice Department to be effective before the U.S. Senate, it would be helpful."
Smith's line was softer than that of New Hampshire Republican Senator John Sununu, who has called on President Bush to fire the Attorney General. But, in combination with his vote on the war resolution, Smith's statement on Gonzales gave him a better claim than John McCain or Chuck Hagel to status as the genuine independent thinker in the Senate Republican caucus.
McCain and Hagel can both be counted on for rhetorical flourishes when a television studio is available. But if you are looking for a Republican senator who is willing to break when it matters with the failed policies and the flawed appointees of a Republican president, Gordon Smith is the one to watch.
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.'"