John McCain, the Republican presidential hopeful, got a sobering snapshot this week of what the world might look like if he was elected president. And it did not look pretty.
By Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Washington
The decision by renegade Republicans in the House of Representatives on Monday to reject a $700bn rescue package supported by the leaders of their party – John Boehner and Roy Blunt – made clear that the senator from Arizona, if elected, would be dealing with a band of rebels who fashion themselves as the next generation of Newt Gingrich’s 1994 revolution.
Much to the consternation of Mr Boehner and Mr Blunt, who voted in favour of the rescue package, the renegade Republican caucus has proved itself to be a substantial majority, not a group of outliers.
If he was elected and the Arizona senator were to try to align himself with the rebels, the Democratic majority would probably block his agenda. If he sought to compromise with the Democratic majority on issues such as immigration and climate change, he would face abandonment by the right.
“Democrats are so wary of him and how he has changed during the campaign, he would have to become a born-again Democrat to get anything done, and that is very hard for a politician to do,” says Thomas Mann, a scholar at the Brookings Institution.
One Democratic aide on Capitol Hill agreed: “The same way they [House Republicans] didn’t feel pressure to be loyal to Boehner, [they] won’t necessarily feel loyal to McCain. On the other hand, if he embraces that group [of Republicans], then there is gridlock.”
The House Republicans are not at odds with Mr McCain on every issue: they agree with his opposition to government spending. But they disagree on other topics where he would probably win support as president among moderate Republicans in the Senate and Democrats in both houses, such as immigration reform and climate change legislation.
Publicly, rebellious Republicans appear to be taking an ideological stance against the bail-out by railing against it as a market intervention that contradicts their free-market philosophy.
But one former House staffer says the stand-off showed Republicans in the House are also taking a long view of their party’s prospects, beyond Mr McCain or even the fallout of the financial crisis.
“It marks the beginning of the beginning, so to speak, of seeking to reclaim the Republican reformist mantle,” the former staffer said. “They are recognising that McCain will lose, that Bush will be gone and that Democrats will have the greater majority in the House and the Senate.”
In effect, the Republicans are digging in for a period in which they will have little potency to shape policy, forcing them to rebuild their party and regain momentum.
“If done right, it is a good defining moment. But none of this works if the whole economy goes in the tank and people will point to House Republicans,” the aide said.
But Mr McCain is not the only one who might face resistance from his own party down the road.