The check and balance candidate

Am I a seer, or what?

In a newspaper column 18 weeks ago, I wrote that John McCain should offer himself to the voters as the guy who would check and balance the Democratic Congress. Since it was clear that the Democrats would control both chambers in 2009, who better to tame their most liberal impulses than a Republican president? As I contended on June 8, McCain should “preach the virtues of divided government….Independent swing voters, who are wary of one-party rule, and who tend to like McCain anyway, might warm to that pitch. McCain needs to run against the Democratic Congress…and suggest that Obama, with his liberal Senate voting record, would conspire with lawmakers to provide ‘the wrong kind of change.’”

And sure enough, this very week, McCain and his surrogates are making this pitch.

I have no intention of billing the McCain campaign for my unsolicited advice; clearly, his message mavens were able to see the wisdom of the “divided government” argument all by themselves. In the end it may not be a winning argument, but unlike the Ayres and ACORN sideshows, at least it isn’t nonsensical. Quite the contrary, it is politically credible; as long evidenced by their voting behavior, Americans like divided government.

McCain, in his retooled stump speech yesterday, offered himself as a bulwark against one-party rule by conjuring this alleged nightmare scenario: “Senator Obama is measuring the drapes and planning with Speaker Pelosi and Senator Reid to raise taxes, increase spending, take away your right to vote by secret ballot in labor elections, and concede defeat in Iraq.”

And his surrogates were in sync on the Sunday talk shows. Campaign manager Rick Davis told Fox News, “Do we really believe that the American public is going to feel safe by having the head of Congress and the head of the White House from the same party…?” He was soon seconded by Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty: “I don’t think the country is going to like the Democratic party running the table on taxes, on education, on health care, and have the kind of liberal, unchecked, imbalanced approach to all those issues. It’s going to be bad for the country. I think having John McCain as president to balance that out and be able to work across the aisle…would be a good compromise, a good balance.”

Friendly commentators have picked up the theme. At the Weekly Standard magazine, Fred Barnes (who is typically a conduit for Karl Rove’s sentiments), writes today that, without McCain in the White House as a check and balance, “there’d be nothing stopping President Obama from doing what he wanted in a liberal-dominated Washington.”

Republican Senate and House candidates probably won’t appreciate being thrown under the bus in this  manner – after all, McCain is conceding that his party comrades are toast, and hoping to parlay that obituary into a political asset – but at this point the Republican standard-bearer doesn’t have a whole lot of other options.

With each tick of the clock, his playing field continues to shrink. The election is just three weeks away, yet McCain is being forced to spend precious time defending North Carolina, a newly-competitive state that hasn’t backed a Democratic nominee in 32 years; defending Indiana, a state that hasn’t backed a Democrat in 44 years; defending Colorado, which has voted Republican in nine of the last 10 presidential elections; and perhaps even defending North Dakota, where the latest poll puts Barack Obama up by two percentage points. Yeah, North Dakota.

The “check and balance” argument is being pitched to swing voters – many of whom historically, have embraced the concept. Voting experts have told me for years that people generally don’t go into the booth consciously intending to check and balance, but the results are irrefutable. Roughly two-thirds of the elections since the World War II era have either produced or sustained divided government.

Most contemporary Americans don’t have fond memories of one-party rule; Bill Clinton and the congressional Democrats held all the power in 1993 and 1994, and the voters ended that arrangement by elevating Newt Gingrich and his vanguard conservatives. Two years later, in 1996, House Republicans retained their majority in part by convincing voters that Clinton needed to be checked and balanced during his second term. And we all remember what happened in the 2006 elections, when the voters nixed the GOP’s one-party rule by erasing President Bush’s majorities in both chambers.

Even during the ‘80s, when Ronald Reagan’s popularity was at its peak, voters never gave him a Republican House; and in 1986, when Reagan asked the voters to protect his GOP-controlled Senate (“cast one last vote for the Gipper,” he pleaded), they responded by ousting Republican incumbents and handing the chamber to the Democrats.

The Obama camp is well aware of this traditional sentiment. How often has Obama asserted on the stump that he looks forward to working for the American people, in close cooperation with an expanded Democratic Congress? By my rough count, never.

But the question this autumn is whether the check-and-balance argument still resonates, given the uniquely awful economic circumstances. After all, the dark side of divided government is gridlock, and anxious Americans may not be in the mood for that.

As evidence, I’ll offer one anecdote (while conceding that one anecdote does not constitute a trend). While on the road last week, I fell into conversation with a well-heeled American businessman. He said, “I was really gung ho for McCain, and I intended all along to vote for him. But now I’ve gone all the way over to Obama. I look at this from a practical standpoint. If McCain manages to get in, by the skin of his teeth, he’s going to face a Democratic Congress that’s going to be seriously ticked at the way he won his race. The liberal base will be against him - and the conservative Republican base won’t like him, either, especially if he tries to reach across the aisle. Bottom line is that there would be all kinds of rancor, which means that nothing is going to get done in Washington for the next four years. At least if Obama wins, something will get done. I’m willing to give that a try.”

I doubt that this guy is alone in his assessment.