The general-election campaign has begun. For the first time in American history, both presidential nominees will be sitting members of the Senate. From now on, we’ll hear more discussion of an issue that got little attention during the nomination campaigns: the relationship between Congress and the presidential candidates. It will be an uncomfortable issue for both sides.
Congressional Republicans are not necessarily rooting for a McCain victory. They dislike him personally, but that’s not the reason. Even if he wins big, there is scant chance that they could retake either chamber in 2008. The party holding the White House usually loses seats in the midterm election. Under a McCain presidency, House and Senate Republicans would stay in the wilderness for years.
They might privately want Obama to win this year, but not by too much. They would worry about an Obama landslide, since a huge Democratic turnout could bury them. Their best outcome could be an Obama squeaker that minimizes their losses in 2008 and gives them a chance at gains in 2010.
For his part, McCain has yet to be a cheerleader for the congressional GOP. In the three recent special House elections, McCain gave minimal help to the Republican candidates. All lost.
Obviously, he has had to give priority to his own campaign. Still, his distance from congressional Republicans may reflect calculation as much as necessity. John Feehery, former communications director for Speaker Hastert, told The Politico that McCain might profit from the certainty of Democratic congressional control. “He now can make the point that people need to elect him as a check on the excesses of the Democratic Congress.”
Some go further, suggesting that he should distinguish himself from both parties on Capitol Hill. McCain has long been a critic of wasteful spending by Congress, and it would make sense for him to include Republicans in his indictment. He previewed this approach in his statement attacking the farm bill. He said that its subsidies go “to some of the biggest and richest agribusiness corporations in America – many of which are heavy political contributors to members in both parties.”
Things are different on the Democratic side. Knowing that they will hold their majorities no matter what, congressional Democrats would welcome an Obama victory. The bigger, the better: a landslide would give them a buffer against midterm losses. A President Obama would sign their bills and give them access to executive-branch patronage. Some of his swooning supporters may refuse to believe that he’d play the patronage game. Get real, folks: He’s from Chicago.
Obama, on the other hand, may be less enthusiastic about embracing congressional Democrats. As of May, approval of Congress stood at 18 percent, a level that matches the lowest that Gallup has ever recorded. Clasping an 18-percent institution is not a good way to top 50 percent of the vote.
Some may argue that the low approval rating merely reflects public dissatisfaction with divided government. The data show otherwise. By a 30-26 percent plurality, Americans prefer divided government to unified government, with a 38 percent saying that it does not matter.
During the primaries, Obama did not win a clear majority of the aggregate popular vote. He clinched the nomination because members of Congress and other super-delegates endorsed him after he pulled ahead. Some of them reneged on previous commitments to Hillary Clinton. Washington strategists regard such behavior as shrewd positioning. Ordinary people might see it as rank opportunism.
Obama the outsider got in because of the insiders. He is surely grateful for their support, but he also knows that it undercuts his stature as a champion of change. He would be wise to gain some distance from his congressional party. Such a maneuver would be tricky in light of his near-perfect party-line voting record and his failure to break with Democratic special interests. (He even voted for the farm bill.) But with his sharp mind and nimble tongue, he can probably come up with something.
– John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.