Old Guy

Does Maverick McCain Matter?

He’s back to picking fights with Republicans, but John McCain’s stands won’t change the party. By Eleanor Clift.

Slipping off to Syria over the weekend and urging a greater U.S. military role in the ongoing crisis, Republican Sen. John McCain remains a thorn in President Obama’s side even as he tackles his own party by siding with the administration on key issues from gun safety to immigration reform. That’s the definition of a maverick, a label McCain embraced when he ran for president in 2000 and 2008 but then disavowed in 2010 when confronted with a primary challenge from the right in his bid for reelection in Arizona. Safely installed now in a fifth term in the U.S. Senate, McCain has recaptured his maverick mojo, taking on fellow Republican Ted Cruz and other Tea Party Republicans for refusing to negotiate a budget compromise with the Senate.

Republicans have long demanded “regular order,” and they succeeded in forcing Democrats for the first time in years to produce a budget that now must be reconciled with the budget passed by House Republicans. Cruz and Rand Paul and other conservatives newly emboldened on Capitol Hill are now blocking regular order because they’re afraid House Republicans might be tempted into making a deal that involves raising the debt ceiling. “So we don’t trust the majority party on the other side (of the Capitol) to come to conference and not hold to the fiscal discipline that we want to see happen? Isn’t that a little bit bizarre?” McCain exclaimed on the Senate floor.

Cruz responded in words that should live on in partisan infamy, “Let me be clear: I don’t trust the Republicans.” To be fair, he said he doesn’t trust the Democrats either, but then that was never in question. A brilliant thinker and skillful debater with a high IQ apparently offset by an abysmally low EQ, Cruz has managed to alienate many of his colleagues, McCain among them, with his bulldozing, take-no-prisoners style in a body that values personal relationships and cordiality, however phony. McCain himself, of course, built a reputation in part on his pugnacious personality, and in a recent interview with The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove, called Republican Sen. Ron Johnson a “jerk” for his refusal to go to conference on the budget. That’s actually mild for McCain when he’s trying to make a point. (Editor's note: Aides of Sens. McCain and Johnson clarify that the 'jerk' comment was made in 'total jest.')

McCain is one of a handful of Republicans—some in office, others like former Senate leader Bob Dole—who are pushing back from the Tea Party’s grip on the GOP. McCain warns Republicans that without immigration reform they will further marginalize themselves as a party. This is quite a turnabout from when he was running to the right and said he would vote against the pro-reform immigration bill he cosponsored with the late Senator Kennedy if it were introduced again. Last week, McCain surprised some in his party by endorsing State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland to be assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs despite her role in crafting the talking points at the heart of the Benghazi controversy. (It may have helped that Nuland’s husband, defense intellectual Robert Kagan, advocates positions McCain supports.)

“There are some areas, like immigration and appointments, where McCain feels the party needs to shift toward compromise so that voters see the GOP is capable of governance and not a party, as McCain remembers from the late 1990s, that is only interested in scandal and investigation,” says Julian E. Zelizer, professor history and public affairs at Princeton University.

After McCain was one of only four Republican senators voting for background checks for gun buyers, survivors of the Tucson shooting that grievously wounded Congresswoman Gabby Giffords surprised McCain at a town-hall meeting with 19 roses, one for each victim, to thank him for his vote.

“He’s a western Republican; he’s always followed his own road out there,” says Jim Kessler, a former senate aide who is now with Third Way, a moderate Democratic group. Democrats cheer the return of McCain as maverick, Republicans not so much. Democrats want to believe McCain is the canary in the coal mine, signaling a new GOP on the horizon; Republicans don’t take him seriously. “Here’s the problem with McCain: he’s an old guy, and when you remake a party, you need to do it generationally,” says Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow in the Governance Studies program at the Brookings Institution. “He’s always been a maverick, and even though now he’s doing it for the right reasons, he’s not going to be taken seriously.”

Kamarck was one of the founders of the New Democrat movement that helped elect Bill Clinton. Clinton was able to go into black churches and talk about welfare reform, and still get the votes of African-Americans who were most fearful of changes in the government social-welfare system. In her view, Republican Marco Rubio comes closest to that model of someone able to challenge his party’s base on immigration and survive and potentially thrive if he can pull it off.

“A bunch of distinguished old white men saying the right things doesn’t change the party,” says Kamarck. “He’s (McCain) going with his heart, and he’s clearly been around long enough to know the direction they’re heading is not particularly productive, but he doesn’t have a think tank, he doesn’t have a movement—it’s just him.” For a party in the throes of an ideological civil war, McCain taking sides is worth noting, but that’s all.