Prime Minister McCain?

Might it be John McCain — and not Barack Obama — who is best able to forge a bipartisan governing coalition?

September 4, 2008

Might it be John McCain — and not Barack Obama — who is best able to forge a bipartisan governing coalition?

U.S. presidential politics is traditionally cast as a saga of racehorses. No wonder, then, that the U.S. political debate is rife with concerns that Barack Obama is underperforming.

Despite enthusiastic supporters, record-breaking fundraising, a successful overseas trip and a triumphant convention, recent polls show him with a low- to mid-single-digit advantage over Senator McCain — in what is supposed to be an overwhelmingly Democratic election year.

Although the general election is just getting fully underway, pundits and some prominent Democrats are beginning to wonder whether he has lost his step — or whether he can really connect with working-class voters.

In particular, they are confounded by what happens to the promise Obama brought to the campaign — of a leader who will build bridges between Democrats and Republicans, two political camps that unfortunately thrive by vilifying the “other” side.

The current odds are that this promise will be fulfilled when the new president takes office on January 20, 2009. And, irony of ironies, according to one script, the person to execute this lofty vision for a country that has been riven by internal strife for too long may not be Senator Obama.

Instead, John McCain may be the one who has positioned himself to become the uniter of the nation.

Here is some of the evidence: The talk about him being a one-term president, given his age, actually allows him to govern for the country — and not, as has been the custom recently, for the primary benefit of his political party and its supporters.

Despite his recent electorally driven embrace of the Republican base, John McCain’s political DNA, as evidenced by his legislative record over the past decade or two, is not that of a conservative — or maverick.

No, it is that of a bridge-builder — of somebody who understands that political parties are essentially marketing machines, but that one is not necessarily better than the other.

After all, the ribbing he has received throughout his career from the powers that be in the Republican Party, especially its conservative edges, has been harsh. To some representatives of those circles, he is (almost) as much an antidote to what’s desirable as are the Clintons.

And while McCain needs to rally enough of the conservative base to have a real shot at getting elected, there is a realistic hope that he would govern liberated from those temporary ties, since he may not be angling for reelection.

Instead, he would focus on what he knows best — doing what needs to be done, with the support of both political parties. That is very much what he did in the past on critical issues such as education reform, immigration reform and campaign finance reform.

In each case, he found a potent co-sponsor for his legislation, usually even from the liberal quarters of the Democratic Party. Witness his cooperation with Senator Ted Kennedy on education reform and Russ Feingold on campaign finance.

The underlying vision is not to govern by seeking narrow majorities, by trying to cajole just a few Democrats to support Republican bills on an ad-hoc basis. Rather, his decades-long participation in the legislative business of the U.S. Senate has taught him that — when it works best — all proposals have to be rooted in solid, bipartisan majorities for reform from the get-go.

This style of governance would also mesh well with sizable Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. Most observers expect the Democrats to gain around five seats in the Senate — and to expand their majority in the House.

Thus, U.S. voters may decide to split their political choice — by voting a moderate Republican into the White House, and pairing him with a significant Democratic majority in the Congress.

That would be the electorate’s way of appealing to their political leaders to work together, at long last.

In that manner, the United States under a President McCain would effectively be governed by a grand coalition — formed by a middle-of-the-road Republican in the White House and Democrats in the Congress.

Whatever the presumed drawbacks of such a system from a traditional U.S. perspective, it could help the political system carry out long-overdue reforms.

Accordingly, a President McCain may come to cast himself — rather unusually, but very effectively — more as a prime minister, seeking to advance a slew of key reforms, from health care eventually to immigration, by building working majorities for each of these issues.

And in the campaign that is now underway, count on him to overcome doubters among Democrats and independent voters by casting himself radically as a “senior” incarnation of Obama — a man who has a long-established track record of bringing people together.

The message to Obama? Your time will come, my friend — but it is not now.

Takeaways

President McCain would govern by a grand coalition — formed by a middle-of-the-road Republican in the White House and Democrats in the Congress.

John McCain's political DNA, as evidenced by his legislative record over the past decade or two, is not that of a conservative or maverick — but a bridge-builder

The talk about McCain being a one-term president, given his age, would actually allow him to govern for the country.

The U.S. political debate is rife with concerns that Barack Obama is underperforming.