As president, would McCain take as many risks as he did in the Senate to assemble inclusive coalitions? Many Democrats, noting McCain’s concessions to conservatives in this campaign, believe the answer is no. His high-profile bipartisan partnerships (which multiplied after he returned to the Senate, disillusioned and angry, in the wake of his 2000 presidential-primary defeat by Bush) always coexisted with an overall record that placed him in concert with conservatives, and in collision with Democrats, on most issues. On his way to the GOP nomination, McCain moved demonstrably to the right; his 2008 campaign agenda includes conservative priorities certain to provoke intense Democratic opposition, such as extending Bush’s tax cuts and overriding state regulation of health insurance. And McCain has taken an uncompromising position on Iraq, insisting that he will maintain American troops there until the country achieves stability.
Tom Daschle, the Democrats’ former Senate leader from South Dakota and a senior Obama adviser, knows McCain well enough to have engaged in talks with him in 2001 meant to encourage McCain to leave the GOP and join the Democratic caucus as an independent. Daschle says the complexity of McCain’s record and the volatility of his personality make it difficult to predict whether McCain would govern as a uniter or a divider. “There are sort of two John McCains,” Daschle said. “There is the conciliatory deal maker and pragmatist that he can be. There is the hard-core, hard-line ideologue that he can be as well. If the latter becomes the dominant McCain [in the White House], I think that much of what we’ve experienced in these last eight years will be repeated. If he decides to use the most pragmatic approach, then I think there are tremendous opportunities to work together.”
The likelihood that Democrats will control both chambers of Congress in 2009—and almost certainly by increased margins—would shape McCain’s choices. It would mean he could get legislation passed only by reaching agreement with the Democrats in the congressional majority, the same equation that faced Richard Nixon, George H. W. Bush, and for the final six years of his presidency, Ronald Reagan. That would encourage conciliation and deal-making, especially on issues such as climate change, immigration, and conceivably health care, where McCain has shown some willingness to break with his party’s orthodoxy. Of course, it might also provoke McCain’s more combative side on spending, taxes, and above all, the Iraq War.
McCain is a politician of stormy personal passions, and a McCain presidency would likely offer a roller coaster of cooperation and conflict. He probably would replace the permanent warfare between Bush and the Democratic Congress with hairpin turns in mood from day to day, if not hour to hour. He could treat a Democratic Congress as a legislative partner or an electoral foil—or, most likely, as some of both.
Obama as president would face a very different situation. An Obama victory almost certainly would enlarge the Democratic House and Senate majorities and diminish the already attenuated ranks of Republican moderates who might be open to working with him. In that scenario, both the gain of Democrats and the loss of centrist Republicans would increase demands for Obama to pass his program by maximizing unity among Democrats and minimizing outreach to Republicans. The bigger the victory, the stronger the pressure to marginalize GOP legislators and push uncompromising policies.