Senator John McCain suspended his presidential campaign (in theory) last week in order to help fashion a financial rescue plan that could pass Congress and avert an economic meltdown. He focused his time and effort extensively, although not exclusively, on lining up support from House Republicans. That only one-third of them voted for the bailout yesterday is not wholly the fault of Senator McCain. Nor is it surprising that they did not choose to follow their party’s leader. After all, ever since the Republican convention, Senator McCain has been running away from his party, lambasting incumbents and generally making re-election for his fellow Republicans a lot tougher. Why would House Republicans follow someone like that?
Consider his view of the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 by conservatives led by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. In a line from his acceptance speech on September 5th and repeated in last week’s presidential debate, Senator McCain said, “We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us.” The “us” he’s talking about includes the Republican members of Congress up for reelection this year. Having the leader of your party condemn you for being part of the “problem in Washington” is not likely to make it into many of their campaign brochures.
Then there’s his rants against earmarks. These are appropriation of federal dollars for specific purposes and are usually tacked onto bills without the formal review given other Congressional spending. As a result of this lack of scrutiny, they are often wasteful, used to reward supporters or in other ways bolster the reelection prospects of their sponsor. To say the earmark system has been abused is an understatement.
Senator McCain sometimes appears to see earmarks as the root of all evil. In the first presidential debate, when pressed for a response to the economic crisis, Senator McCain turn the question into a diatribe against pork barrel spending more than once. His basic message is that earmarks corrupt politicians and anyone who engages in this practice — which is virtually all Members of Congress of both parties and his running mate, Governor Sarah Palin — has sinned. Again, this is not a boon to the reelection campaign of many GOP incumbents.
Running against Washington is a time honored tradition in American politics. Senator McCain has made it into an art form. That’s fine for him. It’s tough for Republicans running for reelection.
Senator McCain can’t expect to hammer away at the corrupt nature of his fellow Republicans, even implicitly, and then expect them to follow him in supporting unpopular legislation. Leadership is more than a position. It’s built on trust, respect and common bonds, among other factors. It’s hard to trust someone who has made a career out of demeaning you. It’s tough to respect someone who puts you down. It’s difficult to bond with a leader who undermines you.
Senator McCain proclaims himself a Maverick. It is a title and position that sets him apart from other politicians. It also is an approach that, as his inability to lead House Republicans to support the financial bailout bill demonstrates, will make it harder for him to lead were he to become president.