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12.21.10

John McCain's Lasting Anger

Railing against Don't Ask Don't Tell, shooting down an immigration bill he once sponsored, pushing his own changes to START—the tougher John McCain who emerged in the primaries may be here to stay.

When Sen. John McCain took the floor before the groundbreaking vote to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell, he furiously told the Senate, "Today is a very sad day," and announced, "There will be high-fives over all the liberal bastions of America," from "the elite schools that bar military recruiters from campus" to "the salons of Georgetown."

John McCain, the fighter pilot, war hero, and the man who would be king (twice), has been left fighting an opponent that has already left the ring. On the same day as the DADT repeal, he voted against the Dream Act, legislation he initially sponsored. On Tuesday, he voted against ending debate on the anti-proliferation START treaty and is still trying to wedge in an amendment he co-sponsored Monday that addresses his and other Republicans' concerns.

McCain's triumphant primary win was supposed to heal some of the wounds from 2008. "Certainly everyone's hope is that it would be cathartic. Take your anger out on this punching bag and then come back, but he hasn't."

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Conversations with friends, advisers, and analysts reveal McCain as a man still angry at his 2008 presidential loss, fueling his desire to remain in the spotlight and an important part of the debate, even on issues where he is out of step with the majority of Americans. (Recent polls say close to 80 percent of Americans support the repeal of DADT.) The old McCain may have negotiated or voted no, but taken a back seat. Now, nearly four months after he beat back a primary challenge with tougher stances on issues like immigration, is the new McCain here to stay?

Last year, when McCain thought he may have had a primary fight in J.D. Hayworth, observers blamed his newly conservative positions on the need to win the primary and expected the maverick McCain to come back once that battle was successfully waged. One close friend, who requested anonymity to speak openly, said McCain's triumphant win was supposed to heal some of the wounds from his loss to Obama. "Certainly everyone's hope is that it would be cathartic. Take your anger out on this punching bag and then come back, but he hasn't," the friend said, referring to Hayworth. "It's based on having lost in 2008 and then conducting himself in a way that he doesn't like. He's not someone who likes to close himself off from the media, issue positions that I don't believe he believes in order to get reelected in the Senate, and I think he's angry about that, on top of anger from 2008."

David Berman, a political science professor at Arizona State University and a longtime McCain observer, said the senator cannot let go on issues like DADT and START because of lingering resentment about Obama's win. "He has been on a tear to make Obama look less than favorable, to put it mildly, and I think he is a little bit bitter about the election," he said. "I think he is a very proud man, he was very upset he didn't do better, and resents this young man with very little experience beat him in the last election...He doesn't think of Obama as someone qualified to be commander in chief."

McCain has said he is upset at what he sees as legislation being rushed through the lame-duck session, but he has expressed openness to a DADT repeal in the past. In 2006 he said he would change his position if the "leadership of the military" came to him in favor of repeal. That happened when Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a Bush appointee, lent his support to the repeal, as did Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But McCain was not swayed, citing problems he saw in the recent Pentagon report on DADT concluding that a repeal is supported by nearly two-thirds of active-duty service men and women). The senator said "thousands" of men and women serving have told him a repeal would be harmful.

Old friends like Wes Gullett, a former aide in Arizona, say it is not anger that drives McCain but passion on issues, especially those involving the military, that he feels he knows best.

"John McCain is John McCain," Gullett said in an interview. "People mistake John McCain's passion for anger and he's a passionate guy on many, many issues. What drives him is his passion, and it's easy to say, 'Oh, he's angry.' I don't believe that."

Another former campaign aide said McCain's 2008 loss is not responsible for his changed stances, but it does fuel his contrarian side: "I don't believe the 2008 election has changed his position on the issues, but it has certainly energized him in his opposition to the Obama administration."

On Monday on MSNBC's Morning Joe, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) said she spoke with McCain "a lot" about DADT.

"He just had a concern of the welfare of the military. He felt that doing this at this time could undermine military readiness," said Gillibrand, who voted in favor of repeal. "I just think it is a generational issue. I think he had concerns about how it would affect troops and he's very sincere."

Fred Sainz, the vice president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights organization, praised McCain and the sacrifices he made for the country, but said he is on the wrong side of history. "History will unfortunately record this as part of his legacy, and I think that's sad for someone who sacrificed so much for his country," he said. "I think some of it is just that he's old. Ideologically he's just not there."

Grant Woods, an old friend who has known McCain for 28 years and was his first chief of staff, said McCain believes Secretary Gates' support for a DADT repeal was "political" and that fundamentally McCain does what he pleases.

"He doesn't mind popping people in the nose and taking the consequences," he said. "My opinion is that it just depends on who is getting popped in the nose. For a long time there it was various elements of the Republican Party and a lot of people, especially in the media, loved that. They saw it as courageous. He didn't see it as courageous; he always does what he wants to do. Now he's doing what he wants to do."

Woods said McCain would be more helpful if the White House reached out to him, but "they haven't talked to him at all."

McCain also voted no Saturday on the Dream Act, which would have granted citizenship to thousands of foreign-born college students. He initially sponsored the legislation. Gullett said McCain constantly faced voters on the campaign trail last year asking about border security and that affected his stance. His communications director, Brooke Buchanan, explained that on immigration, McCain believes the border needs to be secured above all else, citing the increasing border violence over the last four years. "His opinion has evolved with time," she said. "Don't we expect our leaders to base their opinions and policies, don't we expect them to change with the time? And that's what Sen. McCain has been doing. It's truly in the best interest of our country."

Woods said "it hurts" McCain to vote against legislation like the Dream Act after years of working on reform but said the senator felt betrayed when Latinos overwhelmingly supported Obama in 2008. "When you carry that fight at great sacrifice year after year and then you are abandoned during the biggest fight of your life, it has to have some sort of effect on you," he said.

And friends hasten to point out that McCain has traditionally always been a conservative, despite that pesky maverick label.

"Fundamentally John McCain is very conservative. His voting record is consistently conservative. The whole maverick concept, yes he is, because he wasn't a total litmus test guy, but he has a consistently conservative voting record," Gullett said. "It's not like he is some kind of liberal. I think people forget because they want to forget. He's had a lot of center votes, but he is fundamentally a conservative."

Of course, for most of the time that McCain was annoying Republicans, it was another former rival who was leading them.

Shushannah Walshe covers politics for The Daily Beast. She is the co-author of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar. She was a reporter and producer at the Fox News Channel from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.