Will America Vote Against a 'Dangerous Threesome'?


(Stephan Savoia / AP)

Speaking this morning in Cleveland, Ohio, John McCain sharpened an argument that has emerged in recent days as a central element of the GOP's case against Barack Obama: that electing him president would give Democrats--or, more ominously, "liberals"--complete control over Washington. "This election comes down to how you want your hard earned money spent," he said. "Do you want to keep it and invest it in your future, or have it taken by the most liberal person to ever run for the Presidency and the Democratic leaders who have been running Congress for the past two years -- Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid?" Together, he said, they represented a "dangerous threesome."

McCain's basic premise is sound. Right now, Democrats narrowly control both chambers of Congress, and experts estimate that they'll pick up between 23 and 28 seats in the House and between seven and nine seats in the Senate. So if Obama wins, it's all donkeys all the time. That said, I'm not sure how well McCain's "divided government" argument will work from a political perspective. Why? Because it has to accomplish several difficult tasks at once.

1. Convince voters that an Democratic government is to be avoided at all costs. Everyone loves checks and balances--in theory. But after eight years of widely reviled Republican rule, it's not clear that voters automatically dread a Democratic regime. In fact, according to the latest NBC/WSJ poll, 49 percent would prefer a Democratic Congress (vs. the 38 percent who's prefer a Republican Congress); 57 percent say that a unified government could "work together" and "end the gridlock in Washington"; and only 18 percent blame Congress for the country's problems (vs. the 35 percent who blame the Bush Administration). All of those forces are working in the Dems' favor.

2. Convince voters that Obama is a secret radical. According to the same poll, only 18 percent of voters think Obama is "too liberal on social and moral issues"; you can bet that all 18 percent of them are already voting for McCain. When asked to respond to McCain's divided government argument yesterday in Colorado, Obama saidvoters shouldn't expect any "sudden lurches to the left." He continued: "I think what we need to do is to create a responsive enough government that we’re dealing with our heath care crisis, dealing with energy in a serious way, pushing through a more balanced tax program so that middle class families are benefiting and responsibly ending the war in Iraq. Those things are going to take up a huge amount of time, you know when we’re also trying to stabilize the financial market. I don’t think we’re going to have time to engage in a bunch of crazy things that people, the McCain campaign specifically, has suggested we might." McCain is essentially asking voters to believe that Obama is lying and that his policies are actually more liberal than they suspect. Not an easy sell.  

3. Convince voters that Reid and Pelosi would control Obama.Swing voters may not believe that Obama is a liberal in sheep's clothing, but many do see Pelosi and Reid as too liberal for comfort. Theoretically, McCain could gain points by arguing that Obama would be powerless to stop their agenda and that only a Republican White House could keep things under control. But as New York magazine'sJohn Heilemann reports, this may be uniquely untrue. "The unconventional way he ran for office, the whole bottom-up movement thing, may grant him a degree of independence unique in modern history," he writes. "'Personally, I think the depth of the Obama realignment is being underestimated,' says the Republican media savant Stuart Stevens, who helped elect Bush twice. 'They have basically invented their own party that is compatible with the Democratic Party but is bigger than the Democratic Party. Their e-mail list is more powerful than the DNC or RNC. In essence, Obama would be elected as an Independent with Democratic backing—like Bernie Sanders on steroids.'" Voters may sense this.

4. Convince voters to punish Obama--and not their Congressional candidates. Let's assume that voters buy McCain's basic premise that it'd be good to have a divided government and are willing to vote in part to preserve one. It's still not clear why they'd vote against the presidential candidate that they prefer--56 percent are either “optimistic or confident” or “satisfied and hopeful” that Obama would do a good job, while only 44 percent say the same of McCain--instead of simply voting against their local Democratic congressional candidate. McCain has an admirable history of crossing party lines, and he's probably the Republican best equipped to get things done in what promises to be a massively Democratic D.C. Still, he's hoping voters will base their presidential preference on the likely composition of Congress. That seems a little backwards.

5. Convince voters who already say they support Obama. As I reported this morning, "according to the RCP swing-state averages, Obama leads by more than eight points and pulls down more than 50 percent support in every John Kerry state as well as the Bush states of Iowa and New Mexico, bringing his electoral vote count to 263. In addition, Obama's beating McCain 51.7 to 44.5 in Virginia and 51.3 to 44.8 in Colorado. That puts the Democrat at 286 electoral votes--and again, that's if we're only counting states where he's polling above 50 percent." Which means that McCain could convince every single undecided in the country to vote for a divided government--and still lose the election. To win, he has to convince current Obama supporters to jump ship. Calling for checks and balances isn't likely to do the trick.  
 

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