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John McCain: The Maverick’s Last Flight

26 Aug 2018

mccain trumpU.S. Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) death has rightly reverberated across the United States. We are blessed with few actual larger-than-life figures, even in our celebrity-obsessed age. McCain was one of them and he will be missed.

This is not an obituary, for many excellent ones are already available–The Washington Post’s by Karen Tumulty is particularly well done. This is not a personal remembrance. I briefly swept past Sen. McCain once or twice in the underground tunnels between the U.S. Senate and the surrounding Senate office buildings. I did not bother him since he was clearly on his way to work and at great pace. I am guessing he did everything at great pace, though I am possibly mistaken in this.

What McCain endured in Hanoi for 5.5 years is beyond my imagination as a human being. Solitary confinement. Torture. Beatings. Constant surveillance. He not only persisted and survived, partially broken physically, but the experience seems to have refined his character. Instead of ruining him, it built him into the man he became. Instead of needing an insane asylum, he chose Congress as an outlet–of course one might say I have repeated myself. He was a patriot of the highest order, one who suffered for his country, bled, and should have died, multiple times. He should be honored for all time as a great American.

More than anything, this is a brief musing on McCain’s complicated political reputation. He seemed, in so many ways, a man appropriately out of step with his times. While many in his generation grew to hate the Vietnam War, and disdained its goals, McCain lamented the missing spine in the political class–the one that would have been necessary to push through to win the war.

He took glee in running against Republicans and denouncing them, often theatrically and only with the purpose of posturing. He was one of two Republicans to vote against George W. Bush’s proposed tax cuts, for example. Posturing matters, mind you, and I am not minimizing the risks of personal stands, but McCain seems to have cultivated that “maverick” independence often for the sake of itself. He blistered his own leadership on earmarks and pork-barrel spending, but seems to have done little to stop the practice outside of his rhetoric. He crusaded. At the same time, he was reliably conservative and often voted along expected lines. He has a 81 lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, well to the right of supposed fellow moderates like Murkowski and Collins, somewhere in the neighborhood of Grassley, Young, Heller, and Portman. These are not squishes and neither was McCain.

There is a historic norm in the Senate, a body that thrives on such things. The “workhorse” is the animal that gets things done. It is not concerned with looks or being pampered, but focuses on accomplishing tasks. The “showhorse” is the opposite. It is concerned with appearances and demands particular treatment as a result. Showhorses love attention. Workhorses prefer quiet solitude. The chamber tends to reward workhorses with support, while showhorses get little accomplished legislatively. Showhorses are in the Senate to achieve other things, while workhorses are there to achieve certain policy goals. McCain was, by most accounts, not a well-liked Senator. He bristled. He rankled. He railed.

Looking over his multi-decade career in the Senate, one sees little in the way of actual, legislative accomplishment. There were moments, to be sure, but they were few and often at the expense of his own party’s desires. McCain-Feingold (or Shays-Meehan in the U.S. House), the big bill most connected to McCain, was resisted by Republicans and failed to clear the cloture hurdle until a similar version made it through the House first. Even then, it earned only 60 votes, and the overwhelming majority of them were Democrats. Only ten Republicans voted for the measure.

McCain was probably most effective in Defense and Foreign Affairs. He rose to chair the powerful Armed Services Committee, and he was a constant, outspoken advocate for American interests overseas. He spoke out against tyranny at home and abroad. He campaigned against the use of torture, however it is defined, in military or covert interrogations. He was a persistent critic of Russia. Such things are often unattached to legislation and they count.

McCain was a leader and the presidency seemed like a natural step in some ways, but he was often at odds with his party, so he would have to win in an unusual cycle. Also, how could he run against the establishment once he’d been in the Senate for a couple of decades? Well, he tried, but his timing was not ideal. Had the electorate in 2000 been more like the electorate in 2016, I think McCain may have been able to sweep aside George W. Bush, who was only a passable political talent and somewhat inexperienced compared to McCain. But 2000 was not today. When he finally seized the GOP nomination 2008, an outsider of a different sort was favored. Obama was from central casting for that time and place. McCain felt, it seemed, as if he needed to complete the proverbial Hail Mary to pull out that election.

Hence, Sarah Palin. She seemed a perfect political spouse to McCain. Also a “maverick,” she disdained general categories and was willing to take difficult positions. She was also, obviously, a woman, which was historic for the Republicans. McCain had long had an uneasy relationship with Evangelicals and he had little appetite for culture wars. Palin assuaged Christian Right concerns. Had she been ready, she may have been able to help McCain as the race grew tighter.

I was at the Nutter Center, in Beavercreek, on the day McCain chose Palin. He chose Ohio as the place to make his announcement for obvious political reasons. The crowd, made up of reliable Republicans, loved Palin. She was new and different. She did not speak in the tired lines of politics. Palin, whatever her flaws, seemed authentic.

But she was not ready by any calculation. She probably cost McCain far more than she helped him. In retrospect, McCain regretted the choice. His initial instinct was to choose Joe Lieberman (I-CT), his fellow Senator, another man who worked hard to cultivate his image as a moderate. Like McCain, his image was earned to a degree. It is hard to imagine how a McCain-Lieberman ticked would have defeated Obama in 2008, but McCain’s hesitation about how to handle the sudden economic downturn surely did not help him.

McCain’s last great moment in American politics revolved around Donald Trump. McCain was one of many Republicans that went hard after Trump when he revealed himself to be willing to say anything about anyone at anytime. McCain lashed out, saying Trump was “firing up the crazies” with his rhetoric. In response, Trump said, at a campaign rally, “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.”

I believed, stupidly, though it seemed reasonable at the time, that Trump had finally said something that would end his campaign. Surely, I reasoned, Trump had offended so many patriotic, flag-waving Republicans with his asinine statement against a sitting U.S. Senator who was a bona fide American hero, this would doom him. Little did I know the trajectory of the campaign, but this seems almost mild in comparison to what came later.

McCain did not let up in his criticism of Trump and, when he had the chance, he aimed a missile squarely at the President’s agenda when he helped vote down the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. I don’t question the degree to which McCain thought it was a bad bill, but there is little doubt in my mind he enjoyed the chance to stick it to President Trump one last time.

That was, it seems now, McCain’s last public moment of note before his death. Trump’s foolish response to McCain’s death, which has been brief and incomplete, more than suggests the bad blood still lingers even now beyond the grave.

This irony, where a man who made a career by staying rhetorically independent from his party, clashed so heatedly with a president who embodies the notion of “political outsider,” hovers over McCain’s death. McCain could have been Trump had the timing been tweaked a bit in 2000. However, to McCain’s credit, there were paths that McCain would not take. There were barbs he would not hurl. There were opponents he would not insult. In this way, McCain could never have been Trump.

At the same time, Trump will never be McCain.

Trump’s power as a political figure is on full display right now, as news of McCain’s death has been taken over by how it is interpreted in relation to Donald Trump. Trump is a political black hole. All issues pull into him by the sheer force of his public persona. That, as much as McCain’s actual death, is the political tragedy of this moment. A great American falls, a man celebrated by liberals and conservatives, and instead of allowing him to be buried and properly commemorated, the White House has rewritten the script and, once again, the President has taken center stage.