After all the day-to-day coverage of Barack Obama and John McCain on the campaign trail, a flurry of polls and endless statements of the candidates’ issue positions, what do we really know about how either would govern as president?
Given the intense media focus on the campaign, there has been surprisingly little written on what we know about what McCain and Obama have done in public office and what that might tell us about their potential presidencies. McCain has spent 25 years in the House and Senate; Obama, nearly four years in the Senate and eight in the Illinois Senate. But even the candidates’ autobiographies are heavy on the early and the personal and light on their time in office.
So let’s look at how McCain would govern. My next column will focus on Obama.
In 2000, Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, Tom Mann at the Brookings Institution and I started running panels on how presidential candidates would govern. While most of the attention focused on George W. Bush and Al Gore, we held a very interesting early session in January 2000 entitled “How Would John McCain Govern?”.
Some things have changed since then. For instance, one panelist, Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, is certainly not McCain’s national campaign co-chairman this time around, having split with him over the Iraq war and other issues. But much of what was said eight years ago still rings true today. McCain is a conservative but maverick Republican who has strong and sometimes populist convictions, works for legislative results, has allied with Democrats, sometimes infuriated Republicans, has a famous temper that he reserves for his equals but not his staff, and is famously open with the press, which endears him to reporters but also maddens his campaign staff as he strays off-message.
McCain’s independence is not newfound. Campaign finance reform is perhaps the most prominent issue on which he worked across the political aisle, to the chagrin of many Republicans. But over the years, McCain criticized a number of weapons programs in Ronald Reagan’s military buildup, opposed that president’s deployment of troops to Lebanon and led the charge for a tobacco reform bill against the wishes of many conservatives.
His independent streak follows a trail in Arizona politics blazed by two of his mentors, Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater and Democratic Rep. Mo Udall. McCain’s bipartisan collaborations began with Udall on environmental and Indian issues when the two served in Congress together in the 1980s, and McCain visited the Democrat frequently at the end of his life, when Udall suffered from a debilitating illness.
McCain’s populism is apparent throughout his congressional career. Whether it is his attacks on special interests giving large campaign contributions or lawmakers earmarking pet projects, McCain’s sense of honor reaches a high pitch when he takes on other lawmakers — sometimes very personally.
McCain’s governing style displays a healthy balance between loyal insiders and outside advice. McCain has attracted loyal long-term staffers, such as chief of staff and co-author of his best-selling books, Mark Salter, but he also seeks counsel from a wide range of advisers inside and outside his campaign. And he has shown that he will shake up his staff if needed. His two campaign shake-ups over the past 14 months are reminiscent of those of Ronald Reagan, who changed campaign managers during the 1980 Republican primaries and, when he became president, named as chief of staff Jim Baker, who had been top aide to former GOP nomination rival George H.W. Bush. This governing style also stands in contrast to that of President George W. Bush, whose presidency was hurt because the successful shake-up that brought in Josh Bolten as chief of staff occurred too late in his presidency to head off a series of problems.
The question for McCain is how the man whose outlines are well seen in his congressional career will perform in the White House.
McCain as president would face a very different situation than Obama. A McCain victory would not be a Republican Party victory. He would almost surely come into office with increased Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress. McCain’s good relations with several key Democrats may make him better suited than other Republicans to govern with his party in the congressional minority. Yet it will likely pose some challenges.
With McCain’s emphasis on fiscal responsibility, lower spending and cutting congressional pork, a McCain presidency would likely see vetoes of appropriations bills and budget showdowns with Democrats. On this front, McCain would probably find strong backing from his Republican colleagues, who while in the minority would support fiscal restraint wholeheartedly.
McCain may also find that he has the possibility of a grand bipartisan deal on issues like global warming. While Obama as president would likely also push measures on this issue, he would find himself with virtually no Republican support. Still, one can imagine McCain bringing enough Republicans behind a bill to combine with Democratic support to pass a modest bipartisan compromise.
Hopes for regular bipartisanship will probably be dashed because Washington is a polarized town. Differences over Iraq policy may further poison the well. But if handled correctly, McCain’s congressional career has prepared him to govern effectively in an era of divided government.
John Fortier is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.