Most presidents try to remake the political and policy landscape in their image. The most significant presidents, and those who have succeeded profoundly, did so while moving away from the center. I refer to Ronald Reagan, Franklin Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. More often, the president moves away from his party’s stalwarts and in the direction of the opposition party. The “triangulating” Bill Clinton did this and so did George W. Bush with his compassionate conservatism.
A McCain presidency plainly would fall into the Clinton-Bush half of this dichotomy. Indeed, McCain moved away from his party’s stalwarts and in the direction of the opposition party years ago.
But a McCain presidency almost certainly wouldn’t like much like that of Clinton or Bush. Clinton’s movement towards the center was purely strategic — a tropism, if you will. And Bush reached out to the Democrats only on a narrow range of agenda items.
McCain, by contrast, has allied himself with the Dems on nearly a full spectrum of issues — everything from tax cuts, to free speech, to immigration, to energy and environmental policy, to judicial nominations (in that case the outreach was limited to moderate Dems). Even when it comes to the war on terror, McCain made common cause with the liberals in opposing effective terrorist interrogation techniques, notably waterboarding.
Moreover, McCain doesn’t view his various alliances with liberals as a matter of necessity; he views them with pride, as he should if the resulting policies are sound. When he moves to the center or even the left, McCain does so with a sense of honor and a certain amount of contempt for “party men.” Unlike Clinton and the first Bush, he does so more in anger than in sorrow.
McCain, then, has no interest in being another Bush I, Bush II, or Clinton. He aspires, I believe, to be a national unity leader — a worthy aspiration, if realistic. In that way, he seeks to become a top-tier president like Reagan and FDR, without having been a party man.
History (or at least past presidencies I have a working knowledge of) offers us only limited guidance about this path. In the 19th century, two very bad presidents attempted, albeit pathetically, a kind of “fusion” presidency. Both — John Tyler and Andrew Johnson — were accidental presidents from an “orphan” branch of their party. In reaching out to the opposing party, they weren’t violating core principles, but they were acting out of desperation. Both failed abjectly because they were unable to find supporters in either party. But neither tells us much about how McCain would fare.
Richard Nixon is the best parallel I can think of from the last century. Nixon adopted or proposed a host of liberal initiatives — affirmative action, wage/price controls, even a guaranteed annual income. He did so, I believe, out of indifference. Nixon’s goal with respect to domestic policy was to remain sufficiently viable politically to conduct American foreign policy.
There’s some of this in McCain. Foreign and national security affairs are his passion, and he cares little about social issues. However, he is hardly indifferent about matters such as government spending, immigration, and clean government. Motivation and interest aside, a McCain presidency would likely resemble Nixon’s in that he would combine hard-line foreign policy with some centrist or liberal domestic policies. But because McCain is far more principled, he surely would be more resistant to a broad liberal agenda than Nixon was.
Nixon’s presidency ended badly, of course, but not for reasons having anything directly to do with policy. Nixon actually was a successful president until the Watergate scandal overtook substantive considerations.
But Nixon had several advantages McCain will lack. First, Nixon’s party was not that ideologically conservative. The Reagan revolution had not occurred and “country club” Republicanism still held considerable sway. Second, though Nixon promoted, in effect, a national unity domestic policy, he fed conservatives enough red meat to obscure that reality. For these two reasons, Nixon’s liberal policies did not cause him to lose the support of what passed for the conservative wing of his party.
McCain’s party is more conservative, and he’s been more prone to demonize the conservative element of it than to attack the “nabobs of negativism” on the other side. He thus runs a substantial risk of finding himself stranded in the likely event that he attempts some sort of fusion presidency.
But only if things don’t go well. If the economy performs well; if the nation is secure; if we’re winning our wars or not fighting any, then the Republican landscape will look as did it did yesterday, February 4, 2008. The nominal conservatives in Congress will fall in line and the movement conservatives on talk radio and elsewhere will be stranded. The left too will be stranded, as it was during President Bush’s heyday.
These are huge “ifs” however. In any substantially less happy scenario, a McCain presidency will likely be a rocky road indeed.
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