In a ‘Change’ Election, Republican Candidates Face Challenges

Posted February 5, 2008 at 4:12pm

A good share of the subtext of the presidential campaign is about how the next occupant of the Oval Office would work with Congress to actually bring about the change Americans clearly want — change in tone, change in interaction, change in policy. Each of the candidates is now addressing this question on a regular basis, both in general terms and sometimes about specific policy areas. The answers are rather different. Let me address the Republicans this week.

[IMGCAP(1)]Mitt Romney is the least coherent or convincing on the subject. His refrain, at least his latest refrain, is that Washington is broken (admittedly an assertion hard to challenge). What follows is that we need an outsider, somebody with no or limited Washington experience, to fix Washington. This has been a powerful argument to voters in the past, and it helped bring us Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. But unless you believe that all these presidents had nothing to do with the broken state of Washington, especially over the past 15 years when we had two outsider, governor turned president commanders in chief, the claim is a specious one.

Romney is also running as the uber- conservative, with his second dominant theme being scorching criticism of John McCain for every instance in which the Arizona Senator worked in a bipartisan fashion to find solutions to major problems, from judicial confirmation to campaign reform to immigration to climate change. In effect, Romney is saying that the only way to fix Washington is to disdain the political equivalent of sleeping with the enemy and take your hard-edged conservative principles to the mat.

In reality, Romney’s record as governor in Massachusetts reflects more pragmatism than ideology in his relations with the predominantly Democratic Legislature. But there is nothing in the Romney campaign that emphasizes that record or uses it as exemplary of his approach to governance in Washington — indeed, there is nothing in his campaign rhetoric to suggest that he would do anything different from the Bush approach to dealing with Congress.

McCain is running as a strong conservative who can show many examples of building bridges across party and ideological divides (see above). Democrats who have worked with him closely have a real and enthusiastic affinity for him — and that includes Sens. Russ Feingold (Wis.) and Joe Lieberman (Conn.). My own dealings with McCain, on campaign reform and other political reform issues, showed a pragmatist who wanted not an issue to exploit but a law to enact. He did not flit from issue to issue, losing interest if the bill or subject floundered or faltered, but stuck with it until he achieved success — which in the case of campaign reform meant many years, and in the case of immigration reform may mean many more years to come.

Of course, McCain’s intensity has made him some bitter adversaries inside the Senate, especially but not exclusively in his own party. That enmity is driven more by his disdain for earmarks than anything else. Many of his colleagues do not like it when he challenges their pet projects directly — and like it much less when he challenges their motives. Others have not liked it when he went after corruption and was willing to name names and take the issue through its full course, including those with a relationship with Jack Abramoff.

His willingness to make enemies or aggravate colleagues for a greater policy good is at best a mixed blessing. And it would not work for a president trying to build lots of bridges, with a different coalition of lawmakers for each issue, and allies turning into adversaries and back to allies from day to day. But both McCain’s rhetoric and record suggest he could adjust his tactics and temper his temper to serve a larger purpose.

Mike Huckabee’s record as governor in Arkansas shows some pragmatism as well. Confronted by a Democratic Legislature, he found allies and made some progress on his pet issues, including on abortion, and built bridges on fiscal policy — enough bridges that the Club for Growth despises him, as it does McCain, for his willingness to raise taxes as part of a compromise. Interestingly, though, Huckabee alienated the small corps of Republicans in the Legislature by his unwillingness to compromise with them, or bring them into his inner circle, and by his willingness to bully them to get his way.

There is a larger problem here, of course. Any new president will almost certainly face a Democratic Congress along with a Republican minority that will be sharply more conservative than the current one, and very unhappy at its continuing minority status. Even a Republican president will have to figure out ways to convince his own party members to swallow hard and follow him to compromise with the other side, probably a harder task than getting cooperation from the Democrats. And that is one area where none of the three major GOP candidates has found a convincing answer.

Next week: the Democratic candidates.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.