Can McCain Run Against Congress?
Buried in a sloppy, whiny column today by Bill Kristol was a fairly interesting proposition:
In 1948, a Republican Congress, which had taken power two years before with great expectations after a decade and a half of Demoratic control, had become unpopular. Harry Truman lambasted it as a no-good, do-nothing Congress — and he rode that assault to the White House. We’ll soon start hearing more from McCain about the deficiencies of today’s surge-opposing, drilling-blocking, earmark-loving Congress.
And McCain will then assert that if you don’t like the Congress in which Senator Obama serves in the majority right now, you really should be alarmed about a President Obama rubber-stamping the deeds of a Democratic Congress next year.
Now I understand that Congress' steadily plummeting approval ratings this year have been a source of endless consolation to Republicans. But the idea that excessive liberal activism on the part of Democrats in Congress (the planted axiom of Kristol's argument) is a big reason for public discontent has significantly less evidence to support it than the dubious belief of some progressives that the failure to cut off war funding, block FISA, or impeach Bush, is the problem. And if, conversely, McCain does indeed take the "do-nothing Congress" tack, he's going to have to deal with the fact that offshore oil drilling and the surge are considerably less popular than, say, expanding children's health care and providing housing relief, which McCain has helped obstruct.
Kristol's other implicit argument is that McCain can batten on the alleged desire of voters to position a Republican president to "restrain" a Democratic Congress. I've never much bought the concept that Americans love partisan gridlock and split tickets to achieve it. And with ticket-splitting down significantly in recent years, it's unlikely to be the dominant feature in this general election. Moreover, there have been exactly two presidential campaigns in living memory where a candidate overtly and successfully appealed to voters to "counter-balance" Congress: Truman in 1948, of course, and Clinton in 1996. And to emulate either of these examples, McCain would have to make up his mind (as Kristol clearly has not made up his own) whether to charge Congress with trying to do too much or too little.
And there's the rub: Congress' abysmal approval rating are something of a statistical anomaly, produced by Democratic unhappiness with too little progress against Bush, Republicans unhappy with Democratic control, and many weak partisans and independents simply registering unhappiness with "Washington" and with the general direction of the country. With Democrats almost certain to increase their margins in both Houses, it's hard to imagine why the same voters determining that result would be excited about canceling its effect by voting for a presidential candidate promising to deadlock Congress even more than Bush has, or to move it back towards its pre-2006 direction.
On top of everything else, of course, John McCain has served continuously in Congress for a quarter-century, and is trying to paint Barack Obama as insufficiently experienced to serve as president. Overall, the strategy that Kristol is both urging and predicting would at a minimum require a candidate and a campaign far more sure-footed than anything we've seen from Team McCain. I doubt these plodding checkers players will become chess masters overnight, particularly with a smart and tough opponent like Obama.