Measuring McCain And Obama's Bipartisan Efforts

Sen. Kennedy and Sen. McCain

Sen. Ted Kennedy talks with Sen. John McCain before an Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee hearing on detainee trials in Washington D.C., on July 19, 2006. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Bipartisan support

Both candidates say they're representative of new, bipartisan politics. Here, Sen. Edward Kennedy and several other politicians speak on May 24, 2007, in Washington, D.C. about the bipartisan Senate immigration bill. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Wong/Getty Images

If there's one thing the two presidential candidates have in common, it's that they claim to be leaders in creating a new kind of politics.

Both have cast themselves as politicians who are willing to work across the aisle. Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain points to his long record of doing just that in the Senate, while Democratic Illinois Sen. Barack Obama showcases his rhetorical ability to bring people together.

Obama has made this bridging of partisan divisions the touchstone of his campaign. "My goal is to get us out of this polarizing debate, where we're always trying to score cheap political points, and actually get things done," he has said.

Obama presents himself as a post-partisan political leader. In an interview on Fox News Sunday, he said that he just wants to do what works for the American people.

"Both at the state legislative level and at the federal legislative level, I have always been able to work together with Republicans to find compromise and to find common ground," he said.

But McCain does not buy Obama's claims. Last month in Louisiana, McCain said that for all Obama's fine words, he has never challenged his own party to bring change to Washington.

"Both Sen. Obama and I promise we will end Washington's stagnant, unproductive partisanship. But one of us has a record of working to do that and one of us doesn't," he said. "Americans have seen me put aside partisan and personal interests to move this country forward. They haven't seen Sen. Obama do the same."

McCain's Work 'Across The Aisle'

McCain has made a career of taking heat from his own party for working with liberal Democrats, such as Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold on campaign finance reform or Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy on immigration. These bipartisan efforts are both the source of his maverick reputation and the cause of his ongoing problems with his own party's conservative base.

One of McCain's closest allies in the Senate, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, says McCain's willingness to work across the aisle on these hot-button issues is one of his strongest qualifications.

"On all these issues that are tough and controversial, John has been out front when it comes time to ask who will do the hard things as the next president. The best way to answer that question is to ask who has done the hard things before he became president," Graham said.

Whenever there's a bipartisan scrum of moderate Democratic and Republican senators working toward a compromise on judicial filibusters, or with other groups dealing with torture, tobacco regulation or global warming, McCain can usually be found right in the middle. The same is not true for Obama.

Obama's Bipartisan Work

When asked for examples of when he has broken with the Democratic Party to reach across the aisle, Obama cites legal reform. "When I voted for a tort reform measure that was fiercely opposed by the trial lawyers, I got attacked pretty hard from the left," he said.

Obama also points to his willingness to consider merit pay for teachers. "I've gotten in trouble with the teachers union on this — that we should be experimenting with charter schools," he said. "We should be experimenting with different ways of compensating teachers."

His campaign often refers reporters to Tom Coburn, the conservative Republican senator from Oklahoma who co-sponsored an ethics reform bill with Obama. Coburn backs McCain, but he had this to say about Obama:

"He has admirable qualities. He does reach out. And he has a good staff, and we've worked together on a couple of things, and it's been a pleasure to work with him."

The only caveat, Coburn said, is that the nature of the ethics reform bill that he and Obama sponsored was easy and popular. After all, it passed the Senate 98-2.

"It's easy to work across the aisle on consensus items. It's when you demonstrate that you'll stand in between — in no man's land between the two trenches of the Democratic and Republican base, and you'll take the heat," he said. "We haven't seen that from Barack. As much as I like him, he's not ever rejected anything of his party to be able to stand in the middle."

But another Republican senator takes it for granted that Obama has earned his bipartisan spurs. Gordon Smith (OR), who is running for re-election, is running an ad in which he basks in Obama's post-partisan glow.

"Who says Gordon Smith helped lead the fight for better gas mileage and a cleaner environment?" the commercial says. "Barack Obama. He joined with Gordon and broke through a 20-year deadlock to pass new laws, which increased gas mileage for automobiles. Gov. Ted Kologoski praised their bipartisan partnership."

Measuring The Candidates' Bipartisan Efforts

Comparing Obama and McCain on bipartisanship is a little like comparing apples and oranges. Obama has only been in the Senate for three years, and he voted with his party 97 percent of the time.

McCain — who has been in the Senate since 1987 — voted with his party just 83 percent of the time.

If the criteria are who has stuck his neck out on difficult issues and paid the price for doing it, McCain has done it over Obama. But Mike Murphy, a former McCain strategist, says that doesn't mean Obama doesn't aspire to the same thing.

"I think McCain is the guy who has done the things in a post-partisan way that have cost him tough political pain," Murphy said. "I think Barack Obama is the guy who says he wants to do it — and I believe him, by the way — but has never really left the wounds on the floor. That doesn't mean Barack is incapable of it, or doesn't even mean that he doesn't want to do it. He just hasn't. McCain has."

So the question is, would it be easier for a President Obama to act on his post-partisan instincts, or for a President McCain to re-enact his Senate record of working across the aisle?

Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, who has written extensively about partisan gridlock in Washington, thinks it might be hard for both men to achieve their goals, but for very different reasons.

If Obama is elected, Ornstein says that the left wing of the Democratic Party will be "sky high."

"If Democrats sweep — and believing that they don't need anybody else and that this is a new New Deal — the question for Obama is going to be much more whether he has the backbone to stand up to his own base, not whether he has the willingness to work the other side of the aisle," he said.

And a McCain presidency would have the opposite problem, Ornstein says. Instead of an overeager, resurgent Democratic majority, a diminished, demoralized Republican minority may not be in the mood for any compromise at all.

"This time, Republicans are not going to start with any level of trust that John McCain will hold out for their interests," he said. "Frankly, you cannot make a tango with two working for a president, unless he can keep his own party, along with people on the other side."

Campaign Clues

Before one of these candidates gets a chance to make his post-partisan vision a reality, voters can judge the candidates on how they run their campaigns.

Both have promised to practice a new kind of politics without demonizing their opponents. But so far, the candidates or their surrogates have been attacking each other's character, mental competence and military record.

Each candidate has described the other's positions as stupid, delusional or confused, and it's only July.

For two candidates who each claim to represent something new and different, they are running campaigns that look a lot like politics as usual.

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