Stateline Story

Bush, McCain View State Issues Similarly

  • September 01, 2008
  • By Daniel C. Vock

Democrats charge that a John McCain presidency would mean "four more years" of President Bush's policies. A close look at both men's records shows, on issues important to states, the Republicans are not far apart.

It's tough to predict how anyone will perform as president, and, many of the states' frustrations with the Bush administration concern how it has made decisions, as well as the substance of those decisions. But on issue after issue that affect state governments, the GOP's presumptive nominee and the current president hold similar views.

They worked together in a thwarted attempt to overhaul the nation's immigration laws. They agree on abortion, school choice, secure driver's licenses and off-shore drilling. The two men both opposed efforts to stimulate the economy by spending more on improving infrastructure, and McCain backed Bush's veto of a measure to expand children's health insurance because of its cost.

During the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., this week, McCain is expected to share his vision of how he would run the country. But comparisons to the current GOP administration are inevitable, with Democrats trying to link the two.

Michael Bird, federal affairs counsel for the National Conference of State Legislatures, was optimistic that a McCain administration would be easier to work with than the current Bush administration.

"It's been so bad, it couldn't possibly get worse," Bird said of states' relationships with the Bush administration.

In his 26-year congressional career, McCain has focused on foreign affairs and commerce issues, which don't intersect heavily with state programs. That means state officials don't have a lot of experience to predict how McCain would deal with states, Bird said.

But Bird said state-federal relations are at their lowest point since at least the Reagan administration. State officials and federal agencies don't trust each other, state leaders are rarely consulted for far-reaching policy changes and states are constantly fighting administration efforts to cut programs that states rely on, he said. The McCain campaign did not return calls for comment.

After Democrats took control of Congress in the 2006 elections, they pressed for a number of measures they claimed would help states.

The Democrat-led Congress sent Bush a $35 billion, five-year expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which insures working families who make too much money to qualify for Medicaid but can't afford to buy private coverage. Bush vetoed the measure, arguing it was too costly and too expansive. McCain supported Bush's veto.

States pressed for relief - such as direct subsidies or increased Medicaid matching funds - when Congress took up an economic stimulus package this year, but didn't receive help in the final agreement.

Now several leaders, including governors Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) of California and Ed Rendell (D) of Pennsylvania, are pushing for a second stimulus package that would focus on fixing the nation's crumbling infrastructure. They argue that pumping money into states to build better roads, bridges, dams and other infrastructure would help boost the economy.

Both Bush and McCain are against that idea. They have argued that existing revenue should be used more effectively, especially by eliminating "earmarks," the pork projects added by individual members of Congress to large spending bills.

But while many of their positions are aligned, McCain and Bush are far apart on global warming.

The Bush administration has resisted several state-led efforts to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other chemicals thought to cause global warming. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (backed by nine states) fought and lost a battle with Massachusetts and 11 other states over whether it had to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. The EPA also resisted California's efforts to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide given off by automobiles.

McCain, on the other hand, wants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions nationally. His plan would force companies to pay for the legal ability to pollute, while gradually allowing less greenhouse gas emissions overall.

After a change-of-heart by McCain, however, the two agree on off-shore drilling.

The Arizona senator once opposed new off-shore drilling for oil and gas, but McCain reversed his position in June. He said new exploration could reduce the high price of gas, even as the country develops cleaner energy alternatives.

McCain's announcement brought him in line with the president. Bush pressured Congress into lifting a federal moratorium on new off-shore projects in July by rescinding an executive order that also blocked new off-shore drilling.

On other issues, the differences between McCain and Bush are small.

For example, McCain opposes a nationwide ban on assault weapons, while Bush in 2000 campaigned in favor of renewing an assault weapons ban signed into law in 1994. That law expired in 2004 and hasn't been revived.

Both Bush and McCain oppose gay marriage, but McCain objected to Bush's efforts in 2006 to add an amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawing same-sex unions because it would usurp states' authority. Still, McCain supports a California ballot measure this fall that would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

On education policy, the differences between Bush and McCain tend to be a matter of emphasis. "During Bush's campaign, education was a major issue. It barely comes across McCain's lips," said Jack Jennings, the president and CEO of the nonpartisan Center on Educational Policy.

They both support No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal law that relies on frequent student testing to ensure schools are performing well. They are also strong proponents of letting parents get vouchers or tax credits to pay for private schools.

Relations between states and the federal government have been strained since Bush, the former Texas governor, took the presidential oath in 2001.

Republicans in the 1990s championed programs that empowered states to experiment, but Bush has pushed states to comply with new, stricter federal regulations while trying to rein in federal spending by reducing grants and aid to states and local governments.

The president's signature education initiative, No Child Left Behind, imposed new rules for states and local governments without consulting with them first. States also complain that Congress didn't fully fund the program, leaving them to make up the difference.

Bush pressed for Medicare, the federal health insurance program for senior citizens, to start paying for prescription drugs. States had hoped the plan would save them money, too, because they would no longer have to buy medicine for poor, elderly Medicaid recipients. Instead, states had to pick up most of the bill for those patients.

When the president pushed his second round of tax cuts, states worked with Congress to secure $20 billion of relief for state treasuries, even though the Bush administration resisted the move.

— Stateline.org staff writers John Gramlich, Christine Vestal and Pauline Vu and interns Leah Szarek and Nathaniel Weixel contributed to this report.