The Best We Got

John McCain | Kinston, NC
The Best We Got - Andrew Work

An article appeared recently in the Washington Post discussing the legacy of Senator John McCain (R-AZ), an elder statesman in his fifth term in the United States Senate. After first achieving renown as a fighter pilot and prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, McCain parlayed his name and connections into a posting as Naval liaison to the U.S. Senate, and then joined the chamber himself after winning election in Arizona in 1987. He was a notorious member of the “Keating Five,” and later in his career, he sought to atone for his transgressions by championing the cause of campaign finance reform with his Democratic colleague Russ Feingold (D-WI).

McCain returned to the national scene as the “maverick” candidate in the 2000 Republican presidential primaries, offering an alluring alternative to Governor George W. Bush. McCain rode the Straight Talk Express to a primary victory over Bush in New Hampshire, but his campaign ran out of steam and money soon thereafter, succumbing to the Republican establishment’s support for the Bush campaign in South Carolina primary and beyond.

Although he lost the nomination, McCain emerged from the campaign as a national household name. Resentful of the Bush campaign’s negative campaign tactics in South Carolina, McCain became a fierce critic of the status quo in Washington. The McCain brand solidified around the image of this maverick statesman doing what was best for the country even in the face of partisan pressure.

This is not the John McCain we have today. What happened?

To put it simply, it was the tea party that changed everything for him. First, the same accomplished senator who pushed through campaign finance reform in 2002 (since struck down by the Supreme Court, unfortunately), and came within a whisker of serious immigration reform in 2007, jumped back into the national spotlight with his 2008 presidential run. To reestablish his conservative bona fides after leading bipartisan support for the two aforementioned bills, he was forced to kowtow to the far-right and bring along Alaska Governor and "hockey mom" Sarah Palin in a historic election Republicans were bound to lose based on the national discontent with the Bush Administration and the suddenly tanking economy. After battling through a case of the sour grapes upon return to the Senate, he was forced to move even further right in his 2010 re-election bid, when the tea party storm was at its most turbulent. This was the shift that robbed McCain of his dignity, and the country of a great statesman and war hero who was open to bi-partisan compromise. He sold out his beliefs to hang on to his seat.

Contrast this path with Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), a ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and its chairman for five years. He was arguably the Senate’s sharpest mind on foreign affairs, but refused to change his views to stave off a primary challenge from the right. He lost to tea party standard-bearer Richard Mourdock in 2012, and thusly the Hoosier State brought down one of the most respected and knowledgeable minds on foreign affairs that the U.S. has had in recent history.

Despite shifting right for the sake of his job, Senator McCain brings respect and expertise to the Republican caucus in the Senate (something it desperately needs), and Senator Lugar is gone because he stuck to his beliefs. Who made the right move? Everyone likes to bury flip-floppers and put on a pedestal those who hold firm to their convictions. I had set out to write a scathing piece on McCain, but then tried to imagine a Republican Party without him. The sad fact is that even with one hand tied behind his back by the Tea Party, he’s still a more valuable asset to the Republicans than almost any other party member on Capitol Hill. The only senators in his league in terms of experience and respect are Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Rob Portman (R-OH), and Lamar Alexander (R-TN) (open for debate, of course). 

Seeing Senator McCain sacrifice his beliefs to hold on to power has been maddening and has brought his credibility into question, but the Republican Party is running short on public servants who can claim balance and respect. With the nomination of former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, McCain has demonstrated his vindictive side as well as his pragmatism, holding up the confirmation because of Hagel’s abandonment of the GOP party line during the Iraq War. After weeks of prevaricating, however, McCain was instrumental in finally allowing the vote to proceed. Of course, he then joined his colleagues in voting against Hagel's nomination, in what proved to be the tightest Defense Secretary confirmation in American history.

This sort of behavior will have to be tolerated by those who hope to see any substantive legislation passed over the next three years. Frustrating and contradictory as it may seem, McCain is one of the few who can usher anything through the Republican caucus. Unfortunately, this may be a reflection of the current state of American politics as much as a statement on John McCain. He's the best we got.

Andrew Work is a first year MA candidate at Johns Hopkins SAIS.