Monday, June 16, 2008

Why a McCain Win May Be Bad for GOP, Good for Democrats

By Stuart Rothenberg

Republicans and conservatives are rallying behind Sen. John McCain’s White House bid, but not because they are so enamored with him or his agenda. Instead, their loyalty is based on their perception that Illinois Sen. Barack Obama as president, particularly with large Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, would be utterly disastrous.

Regardless of whether you agree with them about the results of a Democratic presidential victory later this year, a McCain victory might produce its own series of domino-like events that ultimately might hurt the Grand Old Party.

Illinois political columnist Russ Stewart has argued that the 2008 winner, regardless of party, will face such intractable problems that he will be a one-termer, damaging his party over the next four years and turning the White House over to the opposition in 2012.

I don’t necessarily agree with Stewart that a McCain victory in November would lead to the “eradication” of the GOP, but it’s easy to see how a McCain presidency could end up being a nightmare for Republicans.

In the worst-case scenario, a McCain victory in November could likely lead to a Republican bloodletting that would tear apart the GOP well before 2012, contribute to another good Democratic election in 2010 and hand Democrats such a strong advantage during redistricting that Republicans wouldn’t be able to recover for years.

The scenario is simple: McCain wins and immediately follows his own instincts — meaning he tries to patch together a series of coalitions on ethics, immigration, spending and global warming.

Some of the initiatives require bipartisan efforts, while others rely heavily on Democrats with a smattering of Republicans. A few McCain policies, particularly those involving the war in Iraq and the larger war against terror, depend heavily on Republican support.

The one thing that is sure is that a McCain presidency wouldn’t merely be a “third Bush term.” That’s a smart campaign slogan for Democrats, and it should be effective. But anyone who knows McCain and has followed his efforts over the years — including his 2000 campaign against George W. Bush — knows that, if the Arizonan gets to the White House, he’ll follow his own instincts, not the current president’s road map.

I can’t disagree with one Republican operative from California who argued cogently recently that McCain would likely try to govern as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a nominal Republican, has.

Like Schwarzenegger, McCain would almost certainly find himself saddled with considerable Democratic majorities in the legislative branch. If the new president wanted to do anything, he’d need Democrats’ help, and unlike the current occupant of the White House, President McCain wouldn’t be shy about going after it. He would not approach his job in partisan terms.

Unlike Bush, who came to Washington, D.C., believing that the intensity of Republican support was more important than the breadth of his appeal, it wouldn’t take McCain a long time to reach across the aisle for a legislative strategy to deal with many seemingly intractable issues.

After all, the Arizona Republican has always been willing to work with Democrats, whether on campaign finance, immigration, global warming or ending water-boarding.

In fact, even before his inauguration, President McCain would likely evoke howls from conservatives. He’d probably put together a Cabinet that would reflect a bipartisan approach to issues, and his initial agenda, on everything but the war in Iraq, probably would generate more complaints from Republicans than Democrats.

McCain’s presidency would likely divide Republicans over a number of emotional issues, either because his positions are directly contrary to many in his party (including some with daily microphones) or because he wouldn’t push divisive cultural issues that some in his party would prefer that he advocate.

Nothing undermines a political party’s reputation more than public infighting, so the GOP’s reputation, which almost certainly would benefit in the short term from a McCain victory, would suffer.

The fighting between McCain and conservatives would no doubt spread to the 2010 midterm elections, when two sets of Republican candidates — supporters of the president and conservatives angry at the direction of the party and the country — would likely battle it out in primary after primary.

This wouldn’t help the GOP’s prospects in the midterm election, which could start off bleak and only get bleaker if the war in Iraq had not taken a turn for the good by then and the economy was not roaring along. With, for the second consecutive cycle, more Republican Senate seats up for election than Democratic seats, the GOP could find itself on the wrong end of another “change” argument, handing Democrats an ever growing majority.

The midterm Republican civil war between McCain loyalists and conservatives would also damage Republicans in the U.S. House races and in crucial gubernatorial and even state races. Conservatives who supported McCain over Obama would now see their choices very differently.

Of course, Democrats won’t want to lose the ’08 presidential race and a chance to end the war in Iraq in the hope of solidifying themselves for a decade. And an Obama defeat surely would produce its own round of Democratic recrimination and finger-pointing. But ultimately, an Obama defeat wouldn’t damage Democrats the way it eventually would Republicans.

It’s probably a measure of how bad 2008 looks to be for Republicans that even if they win, they lose.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on June 12, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.