Is Congress Really a Juicy Target for John McCain?

Posted August 29, 2008 at 11:43am

Some Republicans are downright giddy these days about Congress’ unpopularity.

[IMGCAP(1)]They argue that Republicans, including the party’s presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), will be able to tag Democrats with being unwilling to deal with the nation’s problems, and they are counting on the short Congressional session after the Republican National Convention to expose divisions in Democratic ranks, as well as the party’s liberal bent.

That’s exactly the argument made by Republican-political-strategist-turned-TV-commentator Karl Rove in a Wall Street Journal column late last week.

After sketching out a series of scenarios that are all unfavorable for Congressional Democrats, Rove writes, “The end result of all of these messy fights is that a Congress — which hit a record low 14 percent approval rating in a July Gallup Poll before its members left on summer vacation — may become even more unpopular.

“Inevitably, John McCain and Barack Obama will be drawn into these fights. And, although both are sitting senators, the advantage may go to Mr. McCain. Democrats control Congress, so they are accountable. Mr. Reid and Mrs. Pelosi are two of the worst advertisements for Congress imaginable,” he continues.

Rove concludes, “The 110th Congress is an excellent target for Mr. McCain. He ought to take careful aim at it and commence firing.”

This isn’t political analysis. It’s message.

Presidential elections rarely are about Congress, and this election will be no different. Instead, it looks to be about which presidential nominee is better able to run the country, McCain or Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.).

Voters are trying to decide whether they trust Obama in the nation’s top job, not whether they approve of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.). Any attacks on Congress could divert voters’ attention from Obama, a strange strategy since most observers seem to agree that the presidential contest will turn on voters’ views of the Democratic nominee.

If McCain spends a lot of his time in the fall bashing Congress, it might help Pete Olson (R) defeat Rep. Nick Lampson (D), thereby winning back ex-Rep. Tom DeLay’s (R) former seat in Texas (though Olson shouldn’t need much help from McCain to do that). But it isn’t likely to get swing voters in the presidential race to pick McCain over Obama.

Yes, Congress’ job ratings are half what Bush’s are in many polls, but Republicans ought not delude themselves about those numbers. Congress’ job approval is so low because Democrats are annoyed that their majorities haven’t been more aggressive about taking on Bush and trying to stop the war in Iraq, not because they oppose the party’s agenda.

In November, Democratic voters are likely to vote a straight ticket, just as many did two years ago. Their current dissatisfaction with Congress won’t change that, and because of that, Congress’ admittedly abysmally low rating is deceptive.

Finally, during the short Congressional session in September, Democrats may not mess up the way Rove assumes they will. So far, they’ve won the public relations war with the GOP. And since the Republican Party’s image is so bad these days, almost anything that happens in September could end up benefiting Democrats.

Aside from the drilling issue, which Pelosi seemed to botch, the party’s House and Senate leaders have hit most of the right chords since the party took power after the 2006 midterm elections.

And even if Hill Democrats do encounter problems, it isn’t certain that most voters will even notice.

Moments after the Republican convention is gaveled to adjournment, voters will start to be bombarded with campaign ads from all sides. And since the first presidential debate will be on Sept. 26, the last 10 days of September will be all about that major event.

Starting Friday morning, the media’s coverage of the presidential race will become suffocating, if it hasn’t been already. Even when Congress returns to Capitol Hill, journalists will be focused on the two national tickets, not on what is going on in the House and Senate. It would take a major legislative crisis to draw the media’s attention back to Capitol Hill.

Over the next four days, Republicans must keep their focus on only two Democrats: Obama and his running mate, Sen. Joseph Biden (Del.). Whatever most GOP delegates think about former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), former Vice President Al Gore, Reid or Pelosi, those Democrats really aren’t all that important to McCain’s prospects.

After a successful Democratic convention, which included strong speeches by both Clintons and Obama, McCain is still the underdog. Further attacks on Obama may or may not change that, but beating up Congress definitely won’t.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.