Waiting for the Maverick

John McCain may have survived a right-wing insurgency in the Arizona primary, but the moderate leader pundits loved isn't coming back. 

Eric Thayer/Getty Images
Eric Thayer/Getty Images

Now that John McCain and his $20 million in campaign spending have decisively quashed Arizona Republican primary rival and right-wing talk-show radio host J.D. Hayworth, the pundit class is beseeching the 73-year-old senator to return to his maverick persona. Michael Tomasky, editor of the Guardian‘s political website, expressed the hope that the "establishment will write … over these next few weeks that, maybe now that McCain has survived Hayworth, he’ll join forces with his old pal Lindsey Graham, and the two will become the reasonable conservatives, the people willing to make deals with Barack Obama in a Senate of Marco Rubios and Joe Millers."

The dean of Washington’s political press, David Broder, did just that in his Thursday column. "Now that John McCain has taken care of his political business in Arizona," Broder declaimed, "it is time for him to return to Washington and the responsibilities he bears as a leader of the Republican Party and the nation." The idea seems to be that after tacking to the right on issues ranging from immigration to taxes to Guantánamo in order to take care of the bothersome unpleasantness in Arizona, McCain can now drop the wingnut shtick. Like the Grinch, ready to topple Whoville’s Christmas presents over the mountaintop ledge — only to discover that he has a heart after all — McCain, so the theory goes, will now realize that he does have a liberal, or at least moderate, ticker.

If only.

McCain isn’t likely to be as bad as he was over the past two years. He will likely be even worse. Far from trying to work with Obama over the next two years, the GOP, headed by Minority (or perhaps Majority?) Leader Mitch McConnell and fortified by a phalanx of newly elected Tea Party-backed representatives, will demonstrate that the previous two years were merely a dress rehearsal for the coming war to destroy Obama’s presidency. And McCain won’t be going AWOL.

The notion that McCain will repent his bad manners is rooted in two fallacies. The first one is structural. It assumes that the Senate has gone out of whack in the past decade and should, in fact, be a convivial place where the old boys can posture in public and hash out deals over drinks in elegant backrooms.

The nostalgia for those halcyon days has been given a fresh stimulus by George Packer’s recent influential New Yorker essay chronicling the demise of senatorial servants devoted to the public weal — in other words, the era that happened to coincide with mid-20th-century liberal dominance, assisted by the moderate, East Coast Republican establishment. But that establishment, like the moderate John McCain, is as dead as the dodo bird. Ever since Barry Goldwater ran for president in 1964, the right has staged its own insurgency inside the GOP itself. The emergence of the Tea Party represents the apotheosis of this development, not its beginning. If a star burns most brightly when it is about to burn out, then the GOP appears to be going supernova. In so doing, it will try to accomplish more than just singeing Obama. It will attempt to engulf his presidency.

The second fallacy is that McCain isn’t truly a conservative, but, rather, a genial fellow whose momentary peevishness can be dispelled, perhaps, by a few overtures from Obama. But what if McCain really is a grumpy old man? What if he has steadily been moving toward the right, most conspicuously in foreign policy? And what if, at a purely personal level, he views Obama as a stripling who robbed him of his presidential moment and who, like Neville Chamberlain, must be driven from office by almost any means necessary?

Like much of his party, McCain seems to have come to view Obama as an impostor and usurper. In his primary fight, McCain declared in one radio ad that he, a battle-tested warrior, was standing fast against Obama’s "extreme left-wing crusade to bankrupt America." It might be tempting to dismiss this as so much campaign rodomontade. But the martial imagery is striking. It is key to McCain’s self-identity. Like the "birthers" and Tea Party zealots who mistrust Obama’s bona fides, he apparently sees the president as the equivalent of the North Vietnamese — a totalitarian, subversive force intent on extirpating American freedoms, this time on the home front itself.

In fact, the real question for those intent on summoning up the real McCain is whether he ever really existed. In domestic affairs, which have never interested him all that much, McCain has zigged and zagged on spending and social issues. But in foreign affairs, his true passion, McCain has marched steadily to the right, from his initial incarnation as a realist, who cautioned about the use of force abroad, to his embrace, over the past decade, of the triumphalist doctrine of neoconservatism.

As John B. Judis ably showed in an October 2006 New Republic essay called "Neo-McCain," the senator began to espouse neocon orthodoxy after the Gulf War and during the Serbian war on Bosnia. McCain became a staunch proponent of Iraqi exile leader (if that’s the appropriate term) Ahmed Chalabi, who hoodwinked much of conservative Washington by posing as a democrat intent on liberating the suffering Iraqi masses. McCain had liberated himself from realist doctrine long before Chalabi came along. He stated in a 1999 speech at Kansas State University that "the United States is the indispensable nation because we have proven to be the greatest force for good in human history" and indicated that "we have every intention of continuing to use our primacy in world affairs for humanity’s benefit."

The assimilation of this orthodoxy also dovetailed neatly with the talented McCain speechwriter Mark Salter’s unstinting efforts to transform his boss into a Churchillian figure for modern times (the neocons’ worship of Winston Churchill, who is viewed in a distinctly cooler light in his own country, deserves a treatment of its own). Salter, a former assistant to Ronald Reagan’s first U.N. ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick, firmly adheres to the Great Man school of history in the various books, including Character Is Destiny and Hard Call: Great Decisions and the Extraordinary People Who Made Them, that he has penned under McCain’s byline. Salter rammed home the theme that moral character is essential for visionary leadership (avoiding the fact that bad men have sometimes produced good) and, in essence, created a fictional McCain — a thoughtful leader, magnanimous and percipient.

That this fable lingers on is more testament to Salter’s prowess as a wordsmith than to anything McCain has ever done. As a senator, his record isn’t particularly distinguished, and his signature legislative achievement — campaign finance reform — has been eviscerated by the Supreme Court. His distinctiveness in recent years has been solely as a destructive force, not as someone who can be said to merit the encomia showered upon him by his admirers.

It isn’t simply that he now favors extending the Bush tax cuts that he opposed instituting in the first place or that he flip-flopped on trying to stop climate change. A petulant McCain has also sniped at the Obama administration on the issue of Iran. In a fiery essay in the New Republic, he wrote, "If President Obama were to unleash America’s full moral power to support the Iranian people — if he were to make their quest for democracy into the civil rights struggle of our time — it could bolster their will to endure in their struggle, and the result could be genuinely historic."

As Fareed Zakaria pointed out soon after in the Washington Post, this is a delusional "fantasy." And indeed, a little over one year later, sadly, the Green Movement looks like a noble failure. Had McCain won the presidency, he would almost surely have attacked Iran and driven America into a new Great Depression. In the coming months, watch for McCain to blast Obama for proposing a combination of tax hikes and budget cuts to trim the deficit and to accuse him, if he draws down troops in Afghanistan, of shirking from the good fight against Islamist terrorism.

No doubt there is room for debate about the Obama administration’s reliance on sanctions to curb Iran and about whether a strategy of containment really will contain the mullahs. North Korea, China, and Russia will all be hot-button issues as well. McCain is free — as he did during his 2008 presidential campaign when he grossly exaggerated the dangers of the small war between Russia and Georgia — to attack Obama as a temporizer. But in so doing, he will simply be confirming his own reflexive, hard-line impulses.

McCain, then, is in the bunker with the true believers. It’s the place where he has always felt most comfortable psychologically. He is the unhappy warrior, relishing triumph and turmoil, intent on riding into battle against superior forces, whether it’s George W. Bush or Barack Obama, only to return, bruised and angry, to brandish his broken lance as a sign of valor. The man who selected Sarah Palin as his running mate is unlikely to relinquish this role for the well-trodden one of sonorous elder statesman and amiable duffer that his fans in the media seem so desperate for him to assume.

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