‘Team Player’ McCain Can’t Yell at Goldman: Margaret Carlson

April 29 (Bloomberg) -- There was a brief sighting of the Senator John McCain who’s been hard to find since entering the Witness Protection Program for politicians seeking to change their identity for election purposes.

The candidate who in 2008 suspended his presidential campaign to return to Washington to protect the little people during the financial meltdown, the man who once appeared at a press conference with a pig to highlight pork in the federal budget, left the invective and snide remarks to others at Tuesday’s Senate hearing on Goldman Sachs.

Only briefly did a glimmer of that old McCain appear, when he mockingly summarized the Wall Street product known as the synthetic collateralized debt obligation. “How does that differ,” he asked Goldman Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Blankfein, “from going out to Caesar’s Palace, the sports book, and making a wager on the outcome of an athletic contest?”

McCain is hedging his own bets this election year, joining his party to filibuster the Democrats’ financial regulatory bill in his latest step away from the sensible center.

His new guise comes as the senator is confronting his first serious primary challenge from his right, as J.D. Hayworth, the former congressman and talk-show host, pummels him for apostasies. McCain treats his former friend like a piece of lint he can brush off, but the guy has rattled him.

Maverick No More

Ever since Hayworth labeled himself the “consistent conservative,” McCain has wanted to be one as well. Thus did McCain claim to Newsweek that he’d never been a maverick, leaving us to wonder if he remembers three decades of reaching across the aisle, challenging his party on climate change, gay rights and spending. His old self is such an embarrassment he’s blotted out the inconvenient fact that he subtitled one of his books “The Education of an American Maverick.”

Nothing shows McCain in his new posture more than his reaction to the new anti-immigration law in his home state that will allow authorities to stop suspected illegal immigrants, demand papers and arrest those without. Amid a huge outcry against the law, he says it is a useful tool, one that can be wielded without racial profiling -- although no one has explained how.

Is McCain overreacting to a Tea Party challenge? Arizona has moved beyond the days of Barry Goldwater, its refusal to observe Martin Luther King Day and the heyday of Minutemen patrolling the Mexican border. Playing to the worst instincts of his constituents could backfire.

Time to Cringe

The small-government, socially tolerant Sunbelt class will cringe when their gardeners and nannies are rounded up. The intolerant will cringe when their state’s tourism grinds to a halt, as it did when conventions boycotted the state over the Martin Luther King Day controversy. Mexico issued a travel alert to those who might visit Arizona.

McCain has changed on other issues as well.

He long said he would follow the lead of top U.S. brass regarding gays in the military. Now that the brass is for dropping the policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” McCain isn’t.

He was for creating a national-debt commission before he was against it. And he uttered nary a peep of protest when the Supreme Court overturned part of his bid to reduce the role of money in politics.

McCain defends Arizona’s anti-immigrant law on the grounds that the federal government has failed to act on the issue. That’s curiously circular reasoning coming from the federal official -- McCain -- who abandoned the immigration reform he pursued so ardently for so long.

Panicked Friend

Then McCain’s best friend, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, withdrew from a piece of energy legislation he’d written with Democrats, furious that Democrats were about to move forward on immigration in what he considered a “hurried, panicked manner.” The only panic, of course, is over McCain having to address the thorny immigration issue during his reelection campaign.

It wasn’t so long ago that McCain joined with Senator Edward Kennedy for Congress’s last great immigration reform effort, legislation that laid out a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, McCain pulled back from that under pressure from his base. Before Hayworth, McCain seemed to be returning to his more nuanced view of a terrible problem.

Fear Itself

Yes, there’s crime and drug violence and ruthless coyotes smuggling Latinos into the country, and the border must be secured. But the old McCain knew fear and deportation were not the answer.

“Amnesty has to be an important part because there are people who have lived in this country for 20, 30 or 40 years, who have raised children here and pay taxes here and are not citizens,” he said in 2003.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose teeth used to grind upon seeing McCain, now treats him like a cuddly bear and calls him a “fabulous team player.” The new McCain disappoints because there was no other politician like the old McCain, Maverick or not.

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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To contact the writer of this column: Margaret Carlson in Washington at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net