The Decline of McCain

When Senator McCain conceded defeat after his 2008 presidential campaign, he graciously said, “These are difficult times for our country, and I pledge to [President Obama] tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face.” That was a sincere statement from a man who has fought both parties on campaign finance reform, wasteful spending, immigration, torture, and so much more. The John McCain of 2008 could have been President Obama’s loyal opposition, a bridge between two divided parties. As the recent controversy over the September 11 attacks in Benghazi has shown, the old John McCain is gone. America needs him back.

The old John McCain was the maverick many Americans loved. In 2000, he confronted the religious fringe of his party and labeled Pat Robertson and Jerry L. Falwell “agents of intolerance.” In 2007, McCain said the “rhetoric that many Hispanics hear” from his party made them feel marginalized. Once upon a time, he signaled he would support ending the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy if the military leadership asked for the change. And he even reached across the aisle on issues like campaign finance reform.

But in the past few years, McCain has taken fewer maverick-worthy positions, while flip-flopping on critical issues. In 2006, during the run-up to the 2008 presidential race, McCain pandered to evangelicals by walking back his “agents of intolerance” remark. When the military supported a shift away from “don’t ask, don’t tell” in 2010, McCain criticized the president. In 2011, the man who had once criticized his party for its anti-Hispanic sentiment incorrectly claimed “substantial evidence” that illegal immigrants set devastating wildfires in Arizona. As Mark McKinnon, the former McCain advisor and current IOP fellow said, “A lot of people, including me, thought he might be the Republican building bridges to the Obama Administration. But he's been more like the guy blowing up the bridges.” In the ultimate rejection of his old beliefs, McCain said, “I never considered myself a maverick,” despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The story of Senator McCain’s decline is a case study in the kind of divisive influences that have disrupted American political discourse over the past four years. In 2010, just two years after his defeat in the presidential election, McCain faced a primary challenge from the Tea Partier J.D. Hayworth. The Hayworth campaign was built on the idea that McCain was not a real conservative, on everything from campaign finance laws to what he called “amnesty” for immigrants. McCain won the primary battle, but bipartisanship was the cost of victory. The patriot who had once criticized his own party for anti-immigration policies and worked on immigration reform bills suddenly changed course and supported Arizona’s harsh immigration law.

Of course, the 2010 primary battle was only the continuation of the conservative stances McCain had to take in order to win the Republican presidential primary in 2008. But after his concession speech, that was reason to hope he could return to his roots. Sadly, the Senator McCain of today appears embittered, angry, and unwilling to help move America forward. A decade ago, he would have stood up for what is right. Today, he looks to score cheap political points.

A recent example of McCain’s inability to reach across the aisle to address important issues can be seen in his response to the recent terrorist attacks in Benghazi. The Senator has called the Benghazi attacks “as bad as Watergate” and promised to block United NationsN Ambassador Susan E. Rice’s hypothetical nomination to be Secretary of State simply because she spoke from talking points prepared by the intelligence community. There is room for legitimate doubt about whether McCain was being particularly forceful in his mission to find out what happened or simply trying to hurt the Obama Administration. When Senator McCain missed a classified briefing on the Benghazi attacks in favor of a press conference to criticize President Obama about the lack of information on that very issue he showed his true colors. The old McCain would have been laser-focused on investigating and bringing to justice the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks in Benghazi. The new McCain seems to fantasize about a scandal to end President Obama’s career.

Senator McCain does not have to be this way. With the fiscal cliff on the horizon and in the aftermath of a bruising presidential election, Americans want compromise. To restore faith in government, they need it. They want a maverick who will be President Obama’s ideological opposite yet will break with his own party to do the right thing. There is no heir apparent to be the Republican standard bearer after Governor Romney’s defeat, leaving a void to be filled by Sarah Palin if Republicans are not careful. Senator McCain should take up this role, not as a man seeking higher office, but as a statesman.

John McCain has had a challenging few years, but if he takes up the mantle of the loyal opposition, he could be remembered as a legendary senator who negotiated compromises on the most stubborn issues of our time rather than an ex-maverick who fell from grace. America needs someone to bridge its partisan divide. After 25 years in office and two presidential campaigns, it is Senator McCain’s chance to shine. We can only hope that he will resurrect his career and work to change the course of American politics along with it.

Christopher B. Farley ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Grays Hall.