Arizona Sen. John McCain, who has built his reputation on his willingness to battle for his beliefs, says the public can expect him to carry over that approach to his dealings with Congress if he should become president.
But the Republican candidate insisted in a recent interview that--despite the criticism that he has a short fuse--"I have very close and warm relationships on both sides of the aisle" that would serve him well in overcoming what he called a dysfunctional relationship between the White House and Capitol Hill that has "more poison than I've seen in 17 years here."
McCain quickly added that "I have very strong rivalries on both sides of the aisle, too," but said that 17 years in the House and Senate and an earlier tour as a Navy liaison officer on Capitol Hill have given him "dear friends" in both parties.
He also asserted that as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee for the past five years, "I have a strong record of legislative accomplishment. . . . We churn out more legislation from our committee than almost any other committee in the Senate, and almost all our markups are done by voice votes, because we work together in resolving differences."
Members of the committee say there have been occasional outbursts by the chairman, but most endorse his description of his approach. "The issues are horribly complicated," said Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), "but we have been able to deal with them without being snared in partisanship."
McCain is one of several leading presidential candidates who have been interviewed by The Post for their views on executive-congressional relations, always a major challenge for presidents of either party.
McCain said his deepest concern was the decline in bipartisanship on foreign policy and national security questions. If he is elected, he said, he would not wait for Inauguration Day to begin trying to change the atmosphere, but would call in senior GOP and Democratic officials, inside and outside Congress, including Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee and a man McCain calls a close friend of more than 20 years' standing. He would tell them, McCain said, "We have to be talking to each other."
But McCain made clear his approach would not shy away from confrontation. The senator who has bucked his party leadership on tobacco, campaign finance and other issues said, "The greatest strength that the American president has . . . is the bully pulpit, when used correctly. I will do everything in my power to work with my colleagues, but I would also understand my obligation is to lead."
Readily conceding that Texas Gov. George W. Bush would "probably have an initial better relationship" with Congress, because so many Republicans have endorsed Bush's candidacy, McCain said, "I wouldn't be where I am in this race if I had been a 'go along to get along' guy. I'd be another senator from a moderately small state."
McCain said his model of presidential leadership is Theodore Roosevelt, the head of the Rough Riders and the man "who took on the Congress and the special interests" to pass the first law eliminating corporate contributions to political campaigns. "Did he have confrontations with Congress?" McCain asked rhetorically. "Absolutely, because they were controlled by the robber barons. I will be proud to follow his example."
The first bill he would press, McCain said, would be the campaign finance measure he has tried to maneuver past a Senate filibuster for the past four years. As he argues regularly on the campaign trail, passing such a bill would make it possible to reform the tax code, Medicare, Social Security and other major programs, by freeing legislators from financial obligations to big contributors. "You're not really going to reform domestic policy," he said, "until you get Congress and the president out of the grip of the special interests."
McCain also said he could foresee battles with members of Congress over spending proposals. "I won't get along very well with the pork-barrelers," he said, "but it's my obligation not to get along with pork-barrelers."
McCain has had very public run-ins with colleagues in both parties, but he insisted that it is his intention "never to get personal," even though he is "not always totally successful." His relationship with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has led the efforts to block McCain's campaign finance bill, is frosty, but McCain says he tries to remind himself, "Don't hold a grudge."
McCain said he knows that the last graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis who became president, Jimmy Carter, was criticized by some members of Congress for having what McCain called "a holier-than-thou" attitude toward other politicians.
"I'm accused of that quite often," the senator said, "and yet I've tried to say time after time that I'm a man of great failings and that I have fallen prey to the system also.
"I think President Carter's problem was that when he came to Washington, he didn't understand that you've got to work within the institutions. President Carter, as we all know, treated a lot of the institutions in government with some disdain and some would even say arrogance, and that made it difficult for him to work within the system.
"I understand the system in Washington, both unofficial and official. And I know the importance of public opinion, and I know the importance of the viewpoint of the media and opinion makers in Washington. I understand that very well."
But you think it's a corrupted system?
"Oh, sure. I want to fix it, but I think most of the people that I would be dealing with believe it's a corrupted system too. Ask any ex-senator. I want to reform government. I don't want to discard or do away with government. I'm saying we have to reform those institutions and use them in an active way where they represent the American people--not the special interests--again."
The Candidates and Congress
Every recent president has found that one of his most difficult challenges lies in managing his relationship with Congress. The Washington Post is interviewing the leading presidential candidates to hear their ideas for dealing with this part of the job.
McCain in His Own Words
Q: What kind of situation does the next president inherit, in terms of presidential-congressional relations?
A: There's more poison than I've seen in 17 years here....It has a huge amount to do with personalities. The Republicans are Wile E. Coyote and the president is the Roadrunner. . . . We're always after the president and that obscures sometimes our ability to pursue the national interest.
We all remember the best of the past and forget the worst. I remember how poisoned or partisan the environment was in the '80s over aid to the contras. But I also remember hearing about [House Majority Leader] Tip O'Neill going down to the White House and having drinks with the president of the United States [Ronald Reagan]. We don't have those relationships any more.
Q: How would you attempt to restore them, especially in the national security area?
A: If I'm elected, before I'm even sworn in, I'll call Joe Biden, Zbig Brzezinski, Carl Levin and a number of other Democrats and some Republicans like Dick Lugar and Chuck Hagel. I'll sit down with them and say, "Look, guys, we have to change this whole thing around. We've got to go back to what it was like in the '80s, when most of us in this room grew up (and learned about) the conduct of American national security policy. That means the country comes first.
"And in order to do that, we have to be in constant communication. We have to be talking to each other. We have to be working together on the formulation of policies, whether it be on China or East Timor or a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, or whatever else."
That's the way it worked before. That's the way it's got to go back to again. It's not inventing anything new. It's the model that dictated the conduct of American national security policy from 1946 until some time around the middle of the 1990s. Since then, it's been a gradual poisoning of the environment. It is an unacceptable situation if you expect the United States to maintain its position as the world's No. 1 superpower.
Q: Could you do this?
A: How am I qualified? I have very close and warm relationships on both sides of the aisle. I have very strong rivalries on both sides of the aisle, too, but the people I would be doing business with in Congress, I've had relationships with many of them for more than 20 years since I was the Navy liaison officer up here.
CAPTION: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) claims "strong record of legislative accomplishment" as Commerce Committee chairman.