The Case for McCain as Adult-in-Chief

Ivan Kenneally

October 1, 2008

As the eleventh hour of the election season fast approaches and McCain finds himself down in all the major national polls (and well beyond the margin of error at that), it’s clearly time for his advisors to entertain a seismic shift in strategy. The war in Iraq, and the threats from abroad generally, have receded in significance from the public eye partially because of the very success McCain’s own bold policies have engendered. Now, the primary concern among the majority of the electorate is which candidate will be the most competent steward of our nation through tumultuous and uncertain economic times. On this score, Obama has consistently been the more persuasive candidate, even if largely through deceit and demagoguery; on the other hand, McCain has failed to strike a believably sympathetic pose—it’s not easy for a former prisoner of war to credibly convince us that he feels our pain.

McCain’s initial strategy when news of impending economic crisis hit was to present himself as the energetic executive quick to respond in moments of great exigency. The point of immediately suspending his campaign to help broker a bailout deal was to depict himself as more governor-like, and therefore presidential, and less senator-like, or fecklessly prone to meandering deliberation. This was only effective enough not to actually harm him in the process—the gimmicky character of the maneuver largely neutralized its strategic value in displaying his leadership prowess. Also, the details of the bailout, not to mention the many and complex sources of our financial troubles, turned out to be too inscrutable for any legislation, however deftly presented, to score a decisive victory for its champion. Even after all the political histrionics, Obama is largely considered to be a safe and competent choice ready to chart a new course back to economic prosperity.

In a multitude of now obvious ways, the bailout crisis should have produced a welcome opportunity for McCain to wrest away from Obama one of his primary advantages—-his credibility and competence as Economist-in-Chief. Both Obama and his fellow travelers in Congress are surely complicit in many and sundry ways in the mortgage collapse—Democrat legislators in general have proven to be noticeably enthusiastic defenders of Fannie and Freddie from any regulatory reform, however modestly proposed. Furthermore, the kinds of hyper-regulation currently being promoted by Obama and his ideological kin is likely to exacerbate the current crisis rather than provide any genuine alleviation. It should be no surprise to anyone that one of Obama’s most impressive but little publicized accomplishments during his brief tenure in the Senate is collecting more money from Fannie and Freddie than any other legislator in either party, with the exception of Chris Dodd. Apparently, these are campaign contributions we can believe in.

Obama’s otherwise incomprehensible success in dominating the issue of economic leadership has little to do with substantive policy or superior prudence and much to do with his impressive penchant for therapeutic rhetoric—in the absence of any compelling evidence for competence on either side, compassion becomes the decisive criterion. McCain will never out feel his competitor—it simply isn’t in him—but he can make a compelling case that Obama’s victory is essentially a blank check to a very unpopular and very irresponsible Democrat controlled Congress. Just as Obama has gone out of his way to link McCain to a failed presidential administration McCain should link Obama to a failed (and even more unpopular) legislature. McCain doesn’t necessarily feel our pain but he won’t, like Pelosi and Reid newly unfettered from the inconveniences of the separation of powers, inflict a great deal more. One of the few advantages of being the cranky old man candidate is that fiscal frugality becomes a much easier sell.

In short, McCain’s best chances this late in the game is to make a principled argument for divided government—an inexperienced and newly elected Obama will take his marching orders from a unified and historically liberal legislature. Of course, this means Reid and Pelosi, not Biden, are Obama’s effective running mates and McCain should consistently hammer home that nothing will produce fiscal irresponsibility like this liberally-minded brand of political comity between the branches. McCain has struggled to cultivate the perception of economic judgment but he can certainly promise to unhesitatingly wield his constitutionally granted veto power; McCain should bill himself as the last fence against a Reid/Pelosi controlled White House.

Despite all the incessant promotion of his own bipartisan credentials, Obama’s supposed penchant for un-ideological cooperation turns out to be a virtue not called into action by necessity—he’ll have little opportunity or reason to magnanimously reach across the aisle. The relevant virtue for Obama, the one about which McCain should be fostering profound suspicion, is his fortitude in the face of legislative pressure. Does anyone genuinely believe Obama has the will to resist the frenetic tide of costly legislation that will surely pass over his desk in the Oval Office? Can anyone reasonably envision a scenario where President Obama vetoes a Reid/Pelosi sponsored bill and chastens them for their prodigality? For all his quasi-messianic posturing, Obama would quickly become a weak and inconsequential president and his primary and perfunctory role would be rubber stamping the whims of Congress into law. For those who constitutionally favor Congressional supremacy, they’re about to be treated to a four year feast.

The argument for McCain based on divided government is not a platform without its own difficulties; part of the danger is that McCain minimizes his role as president by essentially abdicating his own proactive agenda. There is something philosophically appealing about such a narrowly circumscribed role for the executive—one could argue that the Framers envisioned a more modest cache of responsibilities for the presidential office. However, given the now bloated expectations we have of the chief executive, McCain’s argument for a divided and therefore limited government could generate the impression that we should expect general legislative inertia by governmental stalemate—-reform and change are hard to envision as the product of a long train of vetoes. In other words, especially given that the audacity of hope is the reigning platitude of the day, a call for prudential caution might strike many as a somewhat anticlimactic counter-narrative.

Nevertheless, McCain’s last and best hope for rejuvenating his currently listless campaign is identifying Obama with his underachieving cohorts in Congress. Obama’s ascendancy to the highest office in the land doesn’t make their leadership any more palatable to the voting public—-they will now be underachievers without adult supervision. McCain has to present himself as the adult in the room maintaining an ever-vigilant eye over his neighbor’s rambunctious kids. Handing the keys to the house over to Obama is then tantamount to putting one of those very kids, and not the oldest, smartest, or most forceful of them, in charge. This is not the most inspiring case a candidate can make for the presidency, especially when the appetite for watershed revolution is near insatiable. Still, one can hope, albeit modestly, that our current economic anxiety can be converted into an uneasiness about political adolescence run amok.

Ivan Kenneally is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a Contributing Editor at Culture11. He has published on a wide variety of topics in political philosophy and American politics in journals like The New Atlantis, Perspectives on Political Science, Society, and Culture11.