Obama vs. McCain: Round 2

You could be forgiven for thinking John McCain might want to lick his wounds and move on to a quieter elder statesman role within the Republican party. But think again. It is not in the McCain genes to step aside from the battle. On Face The Nation last Sunday, Bob Scheiffer introduced McCain as a major opponent of the Obama stimulus package. The Arizona senator, in typical fashion, went on to explain in moderate terms his opposition to the size of the package, the “massive spending” involved, and his belief that “America needs a stimulus… but this is not it.” It was classic McCain. Sober in tone, conciliatory in his choice of words and, above all, calling as usual for a bipartisan solution. He indicated that the Obama approach, while appearing bipartisan, was not that different from how the Bush White House operated. Ouch.

The McCain of the presidential campaign has finally been replaced by the McCain of old, the one whose appeal so often crossed party lines. It is not without effect. Republicans are temporarily emboldened. The package which will pass the Senate and go to a compromise conference will not be the same bill that was originally introduced. Spending has been cut and tax cuts increased. Yet, it will most likely not get the endorsement of a sufficient number of Republicans for it to be considered a bipartisan product.

Barack Obama is fully cognizant of this. He has taken to the road and is utilizing the traditional presidential bully pulpit to make his case. Obama’s approval ratings are hovering around 75 % and he is trying to leverage this support for a package that, prior to yesterday’s press conference, was supported by 54% of Americans. Clearly,  Obama wishes he could get bipartisan support for it, but he is aware that he has the votes to make it happen one way or another. The transformational leader is now heavily engaged in transactional politics. This is a test of his leadership. He will stare the GOP down if it threatens to filibuster as job losses reach record numbers. If Obama succeeds in boosting popular support for the stimulus bill, you can bet it will pass within days .

That said, it is healthy for this debate to be as heated as it is has been. Charges of excessive partisanship and old-style Washington power plays are par for the course. Obama cannot in three weeks undo three decades of  polarized politics. In the process, Republicans are rediscovering some of the tenets of their old time religion: tax cuts, lower spending, an aversion to deficits, and a desire for smaller government. The knock on the party these days is that, outside of tax cuts for the rich, the GOP has drifted far from conservative principles over the past two decades. Under Reagan and the two Bushes, record deficits were recorded. Yes, Republicans are hypocritical in this debate. But some—like McCain—have been consistent through the years. If the real conservative values once again come to dominate the GOP, then this exercise will have been worthwhile.

At the end of the day, Obama will win this battle and, in doing so, will take round two against McCain. The era of blatant deregulation, inequitable tax cuts, and unpopular wars based on fabrications will give way to an era where government can be the solution sometimes—but not all the time.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.