Does McCain Have a Domestic Agenda?

I think there are a variety of ways in which a McCain Administration would be different, in domestic policy terms, than an Obama Administration. I would expect Obama to appoint significantly more liberal judges – and more audaciously liberal ones than Clinton did. I would expect Obama to seek to raise taxes on upper income Americans, either through the income tax or through the payroll tax or both. I would expect Obama to make a number of moves to tilt the playing field more in favor of unions and less in favor of management.

But in other areas, I’m not sure there’s going to be all that much difference. Obama has significantly more ambitious plans for tackling climate change, though McCain also favors a cap-and-trade scheme for (effectively) taxing carbon. But Congress is going to be a constraining factor here, even if it’s in Democratic hands. McCain has very little to say on health care, whereas Obama would move (incrementally) towards a system of universal coverage. But again, Congress is going to write the legislation, and I would be shocked – shocked – if McCain vetoed a bill that was genuinely popular; he is already on record as favoring re-importation of drugs from Canada, favoring a patient’s bill of rights, and favoring letting the government negotiate prices for drugs under Medicare Part D, so his record on health care is akin to that of a pro-business Democrat. McCain has, historically, been relatively friendly to business regulation; I’d expect him to staff regulatory agencies with business-friendly but basically competent technocrats. McCain has been posturing as a born-again supply-sider, but even if he had genuinely ambitious plans to privatize Social Security, those plans will be going nowhere. Fundamentally, McCain has very little interest in domestic policy apart from issues of waste, fraud and corruption, and has expressed many times his opinion that while it is dishonorable to listen to polls when it comes to foreign policy, it’s reasonable to do so on domestic policy. I would expect Congress – with an increased Democratic majority – to drive the policy discussion on most issues in a McCain Administration, and for McCain to play the role of moderating influence on the Democratic agenda.

None of which is to say that Democrats should be sanguine about a possible McCain victory; that moderating influence could make a real difference, particularly on the aggregate level of taxation and, hence, what government resources are available for various projects on the Democratic wish-list. But it does mean that, on much of domestic policy, I think the Democrats are faced with a choice far less painful than they have seen for several election cycles.

And I would raise one caution about Democratic ambitions on the domestic front. There is a marked resemblance between the Democratic agenda for the next Administration and the agenda of the Clinton Administration in 1993. You may recall that both a carbon tax and an overhaul of the health care system were mooted then; a tax hike on the top brackets was passed; and two liberal Supreme Court Justices were appointed. The political context has changed considerably since 1993, and the next President will be able to claim a mandate from the voters that Clinton really could not. But it remains the case that a united Democratic government will be eager to push the system to the left across the board from the beginning, and to overhaul two major sectors of the economy (energy and health care) along the way. The last time they tried this, there was a massive backlash. When President Bush tried something equivalent at the start of his Administration, his approval ratings sank significantly (until 9-11 changed everything), and Bush was careful to include among his early initiatives legislation that would appeal to the center like No Child Left Behind – and to get Democrats like Kennedy on board for that reform – while Clinton failed to do something similar with welfare reform (and the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan thought that was a major reason why he lost the electoral center, and Congress).

I’m not saying the Democrats should trim their sails when they think they have the wind at their backs (as I believe they do). I’m just reminding them of Newton’s third law of motion.