Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, an avid boxing fan, knows the story of Joe Louis, one of the greatest heavyweight champions.
Sixty years ago, Louis, a profile in courage and character, was an American hero rising to any challenge. Then he stayed around too long and was humiliated by the younger Rocky Marciano and Ezzard Charles.
The 73-year-old McCain, another American hero, another profile in courage and character, risks the same fate by staying around too long. Bitter over his defeat by Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race and facing a right-wing Republican primary challenge this year, the independent maverick is no more; he’s a predictable partisan who ducks controversy.
“John used to consistently cast votes on issues that were considered non-partisan when I was in the Senate,” says former Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee, who served from 1999 to 2007 and now is running as an independent for governor of Rhode Island. “Now, he’s different than the McCain I served with.”
The change isn’t about ideology. The Arizonian always has been a right-of-center Republican.
He retains credibility on national-security issues, particularly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On most other matters, he’s AWOL.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
His latest flip flop was on the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy on gay soldiers. Four years ago, he indicated he would be receptive to changing the policy if requested by military leaders. When the military brass did just that last month he blasted them, avoiding a confrontation with his Senate primary opponent, J.D. Hayworth.
It must drive McCain crazy to have to run against this opponent. Hayworth, a Rush Limbaugh-esque, 51-year-old former congressman, who, when he was in the House, was described in a survey of staffers by Washingtonian Magazine as one of the “biggest windbags” in Congress. He lost his House seat in 2006 after he was linked to convicted felon and lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He’s attacking McCain for being soft on big government, gay marriage, immigrants and terrorists.
Yet, the veteran senator has positioned himself for a challenge from the right. According to Congressional Quarterly, last year, he voted the Republican line 96 percent of the time, even more than party’s Senate leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. In a campaign ad that aired last month, McCain says Obama is “leading an extreme left-wing crusade to bankrupt America,” including plans for a “government-run health care” system.
His actions are more striking. In the 1990s, McCain voted to confirm Supreme Court nominees Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, both chosen by Democratic President Bill Clinton. Last year, he voted against Sonia Sotomayor, Obama’s nominee. The pre-2008 McCain revered Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan; three weeks ago, he voted against a second term for Greenspan’s successor, Ben S. Bernanke. Bernanke won Senate approval for another term as Fed chairman.
He’s voted against 10 other Obama nominations, including Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, regulatory czar Cass Sunstein, and U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan. The independent-minded Senate Republicans -- Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and Indiana’s Richard Lugar -- voted for all three of these well-regarded nominees.
The McCain who periodically reached across the aisle is a distant memory. He took the lead several years ago in trying to forge a consensus on climate change. Now he’s ceded that role to South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, the new John McCain.
Several years ago, with Senator Edward M. Kennedy and President George W. Bush, he courageously pushed for an overhaul of America’s ineffective immigration policies. He insisted that the Republican Party had to be open to immigrants, that it was good politics as well as good policy.
With assaults from Hayworth, who blames “lax immigration laws” for the Sept. 11 attacks and favors an “Americanization” doctrine that would require all immigrants to learn English and adopt the culture of this country, McCain is a non-player on the issue this year; here, too, Graham has taken his place.
McCain “is in a primary struggle and not taking any public role,” says Frank Sharry, director of America’s Voice, a Washington-based pro-immigration lobbying group.
The most surprising abdication is on campaign-finance reform, an arena where McCain has been the dominant congressional leader, of either party, for more than a decade. As the Supreme Court considered a case in January that would open the campaign floodgates to corporate and union monies, overturning a century of precedents, including McCain’s own efforts, the Arizona lawmaker gave a blistering floor speech suggesting the “integrity of the electoral system was at stake.”
The court, in a 5-4 decision, then ruled in favor of undoing federal restrictions on corporate political spending and many experts say the consequences will be just as dire. McCain’s reaction was uncharacteristically muted, saying in essence the court has spoken so there’s little that can be done.
Not true, as eight of the nine justices on the court said the ruling permits total transparency; public disclosure might at least serve as an impediment to the free flow of special-interest money. Senators are crafting legislation now without McCain’s involvement. Look for Republicans like Maine’s Snowe to assume his old role.
On the nation’s pressing financial situation, McCain remains a Johnny-One Note: end congressional earmarks, which total $15.9 billion this year. Even if eliminated -- actually almost all that money would be spent, just not directed by elected politicians -- it amounts to less than 1 percent of this year’s projected federal deficit of $1.6 trillion.
The sad irony here is that McCain has told friends that if he left the Senate he would be forgotten. In the public square, most retiring lawmakers are.
McCain wouldn’t be. He not only is an authentic American hero but has played a forceful role in the country’s major debates over the past two decades: Iraq, campaign finance, immigration, normalization with Vietnam. His views still would be solicited, his voice heard.
“John would still be enormously important out of the Senate,” says his friend, former Republican Senator Warren Rudman.
Even if he survives this year, the old maverick would be a lot happier warrior.
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)