To Democrats, he’s the second coming of JFK. His rhetorical gifts are Reagan-esque. Meanwhile Republicans are doing their best to depict him as Jimmy Carter 2.0. Everyone seems to have an opinion about which past president Barack Obama most resembles. But in some of the most important ways, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee resembles none of these past presidents as much as he does the one man who stands between him and the presidency: John McCain.
At first glance, such a comparison seems strained. Whereas Obama is young, black and cool-headed, McCain is seasoned, white and fiery. But looking beyond appearances and temperament to the substance of their policy goals, the candidates portray themselves similarly: as post-partisan reformers who are unafraid to stand up to special interests.
What’s striking, however, is that when it comes to accomplishing these goals, Barack Obama is a John McCain wannabe.
Obama has staked his candidacy on the notion that he alone can move America beyond the hyper-partisanship that dominates politics. He bolsters his assertion by touting his record of reaching across the political aisle. In July, he told National Public Radio, “Both at the state legislative level and at the federal legislative level, I have always been able to work together with Republicans to find compromise and to find common ground.”
But Obama was a reliable liberal vote in the Illinois Senate, supporting hundreds of tax increases and extreme gun control measures. He was the only senator to oppose a state law prohibiting early prison release for sex offenders and twice opposed bills requiring medical care for aborted babies who survive. On other key issues, Obama refused to take a stand at all, voting “present” more than 130 times, including on common-sense legislation to ban partial-birth abortion.
Since ascending to the U.S. Senate, Obama’s alleged aisle-crossing has been even harder to detect. In fact, Obama has proved the most dependably left-wing member of the Senate, according to the rankings of National Journal, which noted that in 2007, “Obama voted the liberal position on 65 of the 66 key votes.”
Obama has occasionally shown some bipartisan inclinations. But voting to provide combat gear for troops in harm’s way and expressing possible support for merit pay for public school teachers hardly sets him apart. As columnist Charles Krauthammer jabbed, “bipartisan support for apple pie is hardly a profile in courage.” And though his teaming with Republican Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to pass ethics reform legislation is commendable, the bill was so popular that it passed the Senate 98-2.
Barack Obama claims that as president, he would place principle ahead of politics, but he has rarely, if ever, taken a position that hurt him politically. Even Obama's friend Coburn has said, “It’s easy to work across the aisle on consensus items. It’s when you demonstrate that you’ll stand in between, in no man’s land, between the two trenches of the Democratic and Republican base, and you’ll take the heat. We haven’t seen that from Barack. As much as I like him, he’s not ever rejected anything of his party to be able to stand in the middle.”
In contrast, McCain has worked with Democrats on tough issues including gun rights, campaign finance reform, immigration and caps on greenhouse gas emissions.
While McCain’s aisle-crossing often vexes conservatives, including me, I know that his search for common ground is always undertaken for the sake of the country, if often to his own political detriment.
Take McCain’s participation in the “Gang of Fourteen,” which prevented use of the so-called “nuclear option” to force a Senate vote on President Bush’s judicial nominees. While Obama refused to participate in the bipartisan effort, McCain’s leadership helped lead to the confirmation of a number of filibustered judges, including Priscilla Owen and Janis Rogers Brown. McCain’s efforts also helped break John F. Kerry’s filibuster (which Obama supported) of Samuel Alito’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Obama promises to fix Washington by reducing the role of special interests, but he votes in lock step with organized labor. He decries wasteful spending but has requested $740 million in earmarks during the past three years, including $1 million to the hospital that employed his wife. Obama laments the amount of money in politics but recently broke a campaign promise to use public funds for his general election campaign, deciding $85 million wasn’t enough.
McCain voted against the Farm Bill, ethanol subsidies, and the Medicare prescription drug plan, and he was one of only four senators to object to the pork-stuffed highway bill. McCain led the congressional investigation into the actions of corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff and has been a leader in fighting for greater spending transparency and reducing the use of earmarks. He has even proposed a one-year spending freeze in order to review the effectiveness of federal programs.
Recent polling suggests there are twice as many uncommitted voters at this point in the election as there were four years ago. These mainly conservative Democratic and independent voters need to know that when it comes to the issues they value most — bipartisanship and reform — the record is clear: Obama’s professed aspirations are John McCain’s hard-won achievements.
Former presidential candidate Gary L. Bauer is president of American Values and chairman of the Campaign for Working Families.