If things had gone differently..... John McCain, the oldest first-term president in history, is proving as rambunctious and pugnacious as the youngest one, Teddy Roosevelt. Of course, Teddy probably would have sent the Marines to Venezuela, while McCain had to make do with mugging for the cameras with an exaggerated grimace when he was forced by protocol to shake Hugo Chavez's hand at the recent hemispheric summit.
But as his presidency nears the 100-day mark, nothing better symbolizes McCain's man-in-the-arena emulation of TR than his impromptu mid-February flight (the White House press corps was given 45 minutes' notice before departure) to Johnstown, Pa., in the midst of a protracted showdown with Congress over the stimulus package. Fulfilling his oft-repeated campaign pledge to make the authors of earmarks "famous," the president stood in the eerily empty main concourse of the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport on a Friday afternoon and mockingly declared: "This isn't an airport in need of stimulus money. This is a museum of wasteful government spending."
Asked about his testy relations with Congress during his lone prime-time press conference (which scored near-record low ratings) in late February, McCain retrieved one of his musty jokes from mothballs as he cracked, "To quote Chairman Mao, `It's always darkest before it's totally black.'" The beleaguered McCain congressional relations team printed up T-shirts, which they still periodically display on trips to Capitol Hill, with the inscription, "Is it totally black yet?" It is ironic that McCain, the first president elected directly from the Senate in 48 years and a legislator known for his willingness to work with Democrats in the quest for compromise, is well on his way to becoming the most veto-prone president since Harry Truman, casting 13 during his first 14 weeks in office.
Even if McCain had won the White House with a clear majority --– instead of becoming the second successive Republican president to take office after losing the popular vote --– he probably would have been hard-pressed to find common ground with congressional Democrats on the economy. The ideological fault lines have been deep, from the size of the economic stimulus package (McCain's original $420 billion proposal prompted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to brand him "President McCheap") to the administration's laissez-faire attitude toward a looming General Motors bankruptcy and the almost certain dismemberment of Chrysler (the Detroit Free Press headlined, "McCain to City: Drop Dead").
McCain has often seemed like a third-party president in dealing with Congress. Conservative House Republicans resented the president as a closet moderate even before he gave his explosive "Uncle Sam needs everyone" answer to a question about gays in the military. In the Senate, the anti-McCain sentiment is more personal than ideological, since many of his former GOP colleagues have been the targets of his ire. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was overheard referring to the president as "that stubborn S.O.B. in the White House." The McCain faction in the Senate, which in the best of times could caucus under the same folding umbrella, was depleted by the appointment of Lindsey Graham as Attorney General and Joe Lieberman as the Secretary of Homeland Security. Congressional Republican mistrust of McCain was compounded by the president's abortive effort to name former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle as Secretary of Commerce (which oversees the politically sensitive Census Bureau), but the nomination quickly became snarled over Daschle's tax problems.
Sarah Palin was, in theory, supposed to be McCain's emissary to the Republican right. Instead, the Tina Fey lookalike spent most of her time negotiating with the tabloids, as the breakup of Bristol Palin's engagement to Levi Johnston made OctoMom seem publicity-shy. In contrast, Meghan McCain has played against type, avoiding any unplanned appearances in the gossip columns, limiting herself to tweeting about visiting Girl Scout troops at the White House and announcing plans to write a book (all the proceeds will go to charity) about how young voters naturally gravitate toward grandfatherly presidents.
Even before McCain took office, his selection of his personal vice-presidential favorite Tom Ridge (vetoed as a running mate because he failed the anti-abortion litmus test) as White House chief of staff circumscribed Palin's orbit. An authoritative late March story in the conservative Washington Times quoted "sources close to the vice president" complaining that Palin felt marginalized by the "macho culture" of the White House. Coincidentally, McCain was overheard by reporters two days later in an open-mike snafu saying about Palin, "Shouldn't she be off at a funeral somewhere far away?"
Contrary to expectations during the divisive 2008 campaign, the hawkish McCain has been surprisingly successful in forging a Beltway consensus on foreign and military policy, partly because of his success in luring Colin Powell (who had endorsed Barack Obama) back for a return engagement at the State Department. The fragile veneer of stability in Iraq and the bipartisan commitment (supported by Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden in the Senate) to increasing troop levels in Afghanistan have contributed to a revival of the old-fashioned gospel that "politics stops at the water's edge." Democrats, in particular, have been reassured by the centrist tenor of the foreign policy team, which McCain frequently describes as "my Over the Hill Gang" --– notably Bush holdover Robert Gates at Defense and the surprise selection of former Marine commandant Gen. Jim Jones as national security adviser.
The most emotionally laden moment of the McCain presidency has been, of course, his whirlwind visit to Hanoi as the president hopscotched his way west (also stopping off in Kabul and Baghdad) to the G-20 summit in London. The former POW's rapprochement with the Vietnamese is an oft-repeated tale, part of the mythology that elevated McCain to the Oval Office. But for all the familiarity of the story, there was something arresting in seeing Air Force One land at Noi Bai Airport as the first foreign stop of the McCain presidency. As Stephen Colbert said that evening in a half-serious moment, "This is one president who will never refer to the White House as a gilded prison cell."
Aside from a brief uptick in his poll numbers following his Vietnam visit, McCain's job approval rating has been below 50 percent since the glow from the Inaugural Address ("After years of partisan division, it is time to multiply our unity") has worn off. "It's not that McCain is personally unpopular," said a Republican pollster unaffiliated with the administration. "But with the economy on life support, it's just that voters feel wary and nervous." Part of it is the impression, loudly denied by the White House political team, that the 72-year-old McCain will voluntarily choose not to run for reelection in 2012. Both Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee have already been spotted in Iowa, while Palin on an Air Force Two flight home to Alaska last weekend made an unannounced stop in Des Moines, purportedly to inspect storm damage. When the vice president was informed that the Iowa weather had been unseasonably calm for weeks, Palin shook her head, crinkled her nose and said, "Doncha just hate it when you get things wrong?"
So maybe the relevant number is not the 100-day mark for the McCain administration, but the reality that the 2012 presidential election is only 1,289 short days away.
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