Sen. John McCain has a joke that he likes. When he told it over the weekend, it went like this: Congress "can’t get lower in the polls. We’re down to blood relatives and paid staffers now." But, alarmingly, McCain has used the same punchline for years, even as Congressional approval has declined — obviously meaning that the ranks of Congress' relatives and staff have been completely decimated. But how? The Atlantic Wire investigates.
May 17, 2007. At a presidential primary debate in South Carolina, McCain refers to Congress' popularity. "[T]he reason why congressional approval ratings — I saw them at 28 percent, and you get down to blood relatives and paid staffers when you get down that low — because they want us to work together, they want us to reach across the aisle on issues that are important to America." (Transcript note that follows: "Laughter.")
Gallup approval rating at that point: 29 percent
Number of relatives and staffers: 87.5 million (population in 2007 times the percentage of approval)
Theory on what happened: Nothing so far. This is our baseline, the first mention in the archives of McCain's premonition. Assuming that there are, say, 10 relatives for every one staffer, we're looking at about 80 million relatives and 8 million staffers. Both those numbers seem a little high to us, but McCain is a United States senator and presumably has access to data that we don't.
November 2, 2008. After using the line repeatedly over the course of the presidential campaign, McCain closes out with it at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire. "The last approval rating I saw of Congress was at 9 percent. You get down that low, you get down to blood relatives and paid staffers." (Transcript note: "Laughter.")
Gallup approval rating at that point: a slightly higher 19 percent
Number of relatives and staffers: 57.9 million
Theory on what happened: Worried about the likely election of Barack Obama, some 30 million family members of Republican members of Congress fled the country, taking up residence in temporary shelter just over the Canadian border. And that's where they stayed until after election day — meaning that they didn't count in Gallup's polling.
October 21, 2009. Speaking at a Thomson Reuters event in Washington, McCain makes a point about a Congressional approval poll for which the response was only 25 percent Republican. (McCain worried about skewed polls before skewed polls were a thing.) His point: the polls seem low. "I know we are in trouble … but we're not in that much trouble." Someone chimes in: "That's paid staffers and blood relatives." McCain: "There you go."
Gallup approval rating at that point: 21 percent
Number of relatives and staffers: 64.7 million
Theory on what happened: McCain's point here was actually about how 25 percent of the electorate being Republican meant the party was down to staff and blood relatives. (He was probably also furious that someone stole his joke; there is no "laughter" in the transcript afterward.)
But the good news is that 7 million of those Republican staffers' families decided to tentatively return to America, perhaps all caught in the swell of popular support for the still-new President Barack Obama. It was an idyllic time for all. And then it got worse.
November 7, 2010. Now at an event in Canada (where maybe fewer people are familiar with his schtick), McCain talks to our neighbors to the north about Congress. "And if Republicans somehow feel that we have now been embraced by the American people, look at the last approval ratings of Republicans, which I think was 17 percent. You get down that low, you get down to paid staffers and blood relatives." (Transcript note: "Laughter.")
Gallup approval rating at that point: 17 percent
Number of relatives and staffers: 52.7 million
Theory on what happened: Speaking at around the time of the Tea Party's ascendance in the midterm elections, it's clear what happened to those 12 million Congress-loving Americans. Members of the House Republican caucus, worried about reelection, fired massive numbers of staff in order to appeal to their small-government supporters.
October 13, 2011. McCain makes a rare appearance on a Sunday talk show. "Have you checked [our approval] lately? Thirteen percent approval. We're down to paid staffers and blood relatives, and if we keep this up, we may be down in the single digits." (Great Van Susteren's laughter, if any, isn't transcribed.)
Gallup approval rating at that point: 13 percent
Number of relatives and staffers: 40.7 million
Theory on what happened: With the Tea Party fully running the show in the Capitol, another 12 million staffers get dumped on the streets. Stunned, they and their families slowly withdraw from society, reading Ayn Rand and learning to live off the land. It isn't just that they don't approve of Congress, it's that they don't even have phones any more. They build an economy built on bartering, shuttling raw goods back and forth in tractor-trailers, well beyond the reach of congressional interference.
October 9, 2012. McCain makes a rare appearance on a weekday talk show. "Look, the approval rating of Congress is 11 percent. I have not met anybody in the 11 percent category. I'd love to, because I'd like to ask them what they approve of that we are doing? (Laughter and crosstalk.) … Maybe they're — maybe they're blood relatives and paid staffers." (Transcript note: CNBC anchor says, "Yeah.")
Gallup approval rating at that point: 21 percent
Number of relatives and staffers: 66.4 million
Theory on what happened: McCain's number, for once, is a little off. But what happened is clear. Obama, worried about the lingering effects of his "you didn't build that" gaffe, forces Congress to hire millions of new staffers in a bid to get even more Americans directly dependent on the government. The ploy works; he's reelected handily.
October 13, 2012. McCain makes a rare appearance on a Sunday talk show, as mentioned at the beginning of this post. "Look, I guess we can get lower in the polls. We`re down to blood relatives and paid staffers now. But we`ve got to turn this around." (No laughter in the transcript any more. No response of any kind. Maybe just silence, for an awkwardly long time.)
Approval rating at this point: 5 percent
Number of relatives and staffers: 15.9 million
Theory on what happened: Reelection achieved, Obama turns a blind eye as Republicans flee the country and the House and Senate gut their employee head counts. The government is shut down. The staffers axed in 2011 finally emerge from the woods and declare that they will drive their big rigs around D.C. in a desperate push to reclaim America. That too fails.
McCain walks out of the television studio into the bright light of a Sunday morning. He sees an ad for his daughter's new television show and knows the torch has been passed. No one even laughs at his jokes any more. Somewhere deep in his heart, a flame wavers and flickers out. John McCain now hates Congress, too.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.