Should McCain Even Want to Win?

Should McCain Even Want to Win?

By Tom Bevan - October 31, 2008

Suppose for a moment John McCain wins the Presidency. Yes, with only four days to go the idea remains very much a long shot. But suppose McCain defies political death one more time and ekes out a victory on Tuesday. What then?

When you tick through the list of problems he will face and the environment in which he will have to face them, it's enough to make you wonder whether McCain should really want to win the White House at all.

Start with the aftermath of the election. Roughly 40% of the country (aka Democrats) will be absolutely despondent if Barack Obama loses. There will be ugly cries of racism and - if the election is close, particularly in battleground states where Electoral College votes could have switched the outcome - legal challenges and a collective waving of the bloody shirt will again tear at the social fabric of America.

So unless McCain scored a clear cut victory, he would take the oath of office presiding over a deeply divided country, and one in which parts of the electorate will be nursing psychological wounds and harboring resentments.

Barring some miracle turn around by Republicans at the Congressional level, McCain would be facing sizable Democratic majorities in Congress that would be resistant to his agenda and eager to undercut him at every possible opportunity.

There's also the problem with conservatives. Despite the fact they've rallied to McCain's campaign after his pick of Sarah Palin, they still have fundamental doubts and disagreements with him. It's not hard to see how conservatives could become disillusioned with McCain rather quickly, depending on the agenda he sets and how he proceeds, leaving him in a weakened political position.

McCain will find no comfort from his other "base" (i.e. the mainstream media) either, which has generally favored Obama throughout the contest and with which the McCain campaign has more or less gone to war against in the latter stages of the campaign. President McCain could not expect, nor would he probably receive, any honeymoon or glowing coverage from the press.

Put these things together and it forms a bit of a perfect storm for McCain. In such an environment, what legislation could a McCain administration expect to move through a Democratically-controlled Congress? His options would seem exceedingly limited.

Only two things come to mind where McCain would appear to have the upper hand over Congress on issues that would satisfy Republicans: earmark reform and an "all of the above" energy plan.

Beyond that, however, McCain would be faced with trying to move legislation that would be a difficult sell to a Democratic Congress (i.e. tax cuts) or bills that would potentially alienate conservatives (i.e. comprehensive immigration reform).

Overseeing two wars as Commander in Chief would be among McCain's greatest charges as President, though in many respects his ability to act would be constrained by conditions on the ground.

Similarly, the other area where President McCain could have a significant lasting impact outside of the legislative efforts of his administration - the appointment of justices to the Supreme Court - would also be beyond his control, and should such an opportunity arise it will once again be tempered by a strong Democratic majority in the Senate.

Despite his track record of bipartisanship - or perhaps because of it - President McCain would find himself trying to deal with immense challenges while walking a narrow political tightrope. It's therefore quite possible that McCain's first term as president could be difficult, contentious, and potentially very ineffective.

A surprise win by McCain on Tuesday may make for a miserable first term for him as president, but for those who prefer divided government it may be far better than the alternative: President Obama with a gung ho Democratic majority in Congress.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics and the co-author of Election 2012: A Time for Choosing. Email:, Twitter: @TomBevanRCP

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