By John Bicknell
Picture a President John McCain, next January, making his first appeal to Congress. What might that message entail? Certainly, it will include something about Iraq, and the war on terror, and other elements of national security and defense that will put him at odds with the majority Democrats.
But then, the new president will turn his attention to his domestic agenda. And he likely will be facing a Congress with larger majorities of Democrats than it now has. The electoral math all but guarantees Democratic gains in the Senate. The House looks pretty good for them, too. If President McCain wants legislative victories, he will have to turn to those majorities to get them enacted.
And he will be happy to do so. That’s how McCain has always operated, and there is no reason to believe that if he becomes president, he will operate in any other manner.
Conservatives who have opposed McCain during the campaign have cited his positions on a range of issues – immigration, campaign finance, climate change, tax cuts, legal rights for detainees – where he has sided with Democrats.
But the positions McCain has taken are only part of the problem for conservatives.
As president, with a Democratic Congress, it is the other part – the stylistic part – that will prove to be a much greater problem for conservatives.
When McCain has been on the conservative side, as he has been on the vast majority of issues, he gives it full-throated support. He is not afraid of giving offense to appropriators when he sticks up for cutting spending, and he has not been shy about deriding Democrats who oppose the war in Iraq, to cite two potent examples.
But when he is with the Democrats, he is really with them. McCain is not someone who simply reaches across the aisle to form coalitions with the other side. He walks across the aisle, puts on the other team’s uniform and sings the other team’s fight song.
If he wants to accomplish things – and every president wants to accomplish things – he will have to do so on the Democrats’ terms.
That means his agenda will include those things on which he agrees with the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate:
- A cap and trade regime for climate change.
- Expansion of McCain-Feingold regulations for campaign finance.
- Expanded legal rights for enemy combatants, and probably the closing of Guantanamo.
- Comprehensive immigration overhaul, with a guest worker program and a path citizenship for the millions of illegal immigrants already in the country.
This will not be a “reaching across the aisle.” This will be a full partnership of the president and the Congress, who just happen to be of different parties. The shrunken GOP minority in the Senate might serve as a brake, especially on immigration. But it will be only a brake, not a standing astride history yelling “stop!”
Certainly, on other issues, McCain will fight with the Democrats. On the Iraq war, on taxes, on spending, the relationship will be more typical of that between a Republican president and a Democratic Congress.
In his victory speech on Super Tuesday, McCain laid out his GOP credentials.
“I am a Republican because, like you, I want to relieve the American people of the heavy hand of a government,” he said. “I am a Republican because, like you, I believe government must defend our nation’s security wisely and effectively,” he said. “I am a Republican because I believe, like you, that government should tax us no more than necessary, spend no more than necessary,” he promised.
And, he said, “I am a Republican because I believe the judges we appoint to the federal bench must understand that enforcing our laws, not making them, is their only responsibility.”
If those are the issues on which he decides to stake his presidency, McCain could become a hero to the right. He is also likely to endure legislative failure after legislative failure or, at best, legislative gridlock.
A different path seems likely because it makes more sense both historically – presidents want positive achievements they can point to – and in terms of how McCain has behaved as a senator.
On global warming, campaign finance, legal rights for detainees and immigration, it will serve both the interests of McCain and Congress to act. Congress, as much as the new president, will want to show that it can get things done after two years of stalemate with President Bush.
Between now and November, John McCain can make all the speeches and do all the reaching out he deems necessary to assuage the concerns of the conservative base of the Republican Party. He can even turn his considerable skills at political combat against the Democrats. It might help get him elected, or it might not. If it does, come next January he still will have to begin governing in the face of wider Democratic majorities in Congress, and he still will have to choose between success and failure.
In that instance, he will choose success. And it will be an easy choice for him to make because on a whole range of issues, both substantively and stylistically, he and the Democrats will measure success in the same way.
When that happens, the conservatives in the Republican Party will really have something to be mad about.