McCain was a rare Washington figure who was liked and respected — for who he was.
Even Sen. John McCain’s adversaries admired him. “He’s a man of integrity,” Barack Obama said once on an appearance on Jay Leno’s show in 2013. Joe Biden tweeted when McCain was diagnosed with cancer: “John and I have been friends for 40 years. He’s gotten through so much difficulty with so much grace.” And, of course, McCain’s best friend, Joe Lieberman, wasn’t even a member of McCain’s party when he rode around on the campaign trail with him in 2008.
McCain was a rare Washington figure who was liked and respected — for who he was. It made him a popular figure nationally, seen by the public as a man above politics. But he was never quite popular enough to take the White House, leaving him in the Senate, where his bipartisan friendships, ironically, didn’t serve him as well.
McCain died Saturday at age 81. He leaves behind a momentous, and complex, legacy for American politics.
Service in Vietnam and a key breakthrough
McCain’s political career has always been intimately connected to his service in the Vietnam War. Both his father and his grandfather were naval officers, and he followed in their footsteps, graduating the US Naval Academy in 1958. He became a naval aviator, was shot down over Hanoi in 1967, and endured nearly six years of captivity and torture before returning home in 1973.
Twenty years later, McCain was a United States senator and worked in collaboration with John Kerry — a fellow Vietnam vet turned politician whose wartime service and subsequent political career took a very different direction — to begin laying the groundwork for normalization of relations between the US and Vietnam.
Not only did McCain do legwork that was important to the Clinton administration’s full normalization in 1995, but his strong support for the move offered a crucial dose of political cover from a Republican, a defense hawk, and a Vietnam veteran who’d suffered mightily at the hands of the enemy. Normalization has been so successful that there’s been barely any controversy over it since it happened in a way that can obscure what a potentially dicey move this was at the time, and it stands as perhaps McCain’s clearest enduring legacy in American politics.
The anti-torture leader
McCain’s personal experience with torture also inspired another signature issue stance of his, one whose durability is more in question — a steadfast years-long effort against torture committed by the American government. After revelations that the Bush administration had permitted torture tactics in interrogations, McCain helped lead the charge for legislative changes. And while he at times disappointed civil libertarians and human rights activists by not drawing as hard a line as they would have liked, the reality was, again, that his stature as a Republican defense hawk with a profoundly relevant personal story was key to forging a workable anti-torture politics.
President Trump has never gone forward with his 2016 campaign promises to bring back torture, in part because McCain clearly indicated that this was a red line for him. His passing raises a serious question of who, if anyone, could mount a politically effective anti-torture push in Congress were Trump to change his mind on this.
Notably, McCain was really not a civil libertarian on any broader set of issues related to surveillance or criminal justice. Torture was, to him, a unique evil and something he took very personally — part of a larger pattern of a highly personalized view of the political landscape.
Campaign finance scandal to campaign finance reformer
A deregulation of elements of the banking industry in the early 1980s led to a boom in new lending activity from savings and loan institutions, many of whom ended up taking on unwise risks and going bust — at great expense to the taxpayer via FDIC guarantees.
One of the more than 700 S&Ls that went bust was the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association of Irvine, California, whose chair Charles Keating was a generous donor to a number of politicians’ campaign funds. Beginning in 1985, the Federal Home Loan Bank Board began to look askance at Lincoln’s activities, and Keating called in political favors to try to get the dogs called off. There were a bunch of ins and outs to this, but the climax was a 1987 meeting between FHLB officials and five US senators — Alan Cranston (D-CA), Dennis DeConcini (D-AZ), John Glenn (D-OH), John McCain (R-AZ), and Donald Riegle (D-MI) — at which pressure was brought to bear for regulators to go easy.
Lincoln ended up going bust, and its allies in the Senate — known as the Keating Five — became a major 1980s political scandal. The Senate Ethics Committee concluded that McCain had exercised “poor judgment” but not done anything formally wrong.
The incident, however, became a serious black mark on his reputation, a mark that he sought to excise in part by becoming a leading champion of campaign finance reform during the 1990s. The key issue of that era was that while federal regulations capped individual donations to a campaign, they allowed for unlimited donations to a political party. Prominent politicians — and especially presidential candidates — would thus engage in extensive raising of what was called “soft money,” unlimited contributions to the DNC or RNC that could then be used to buy ads or engage in other political spending. McCain championed legislation to close this soft-money loophole in the ’90s, it became a key issue during his 2000 primary campaign against George W. Bush, and his signature bill — the McCain-Feingold bill — was passed into law in 2002. The Supreme Court, however, ruled some of its key provisions unconstitutional and in later rulings opened up the loopholes that have created the modern-day Super PAC — an institution that, owing to its lack of formal affiliation with a party or a candidate, can raise unlimited unregulated sums of money. Politicians can even appear at Super PAC fundraiser events and meet with donors; they just need to step out of the room for the part where the check actually exchanges hands.
Consequently, McCain’s dalliance with political reform ended up having little practical impact. It did, however, set the course for perhaps the most interesting political trajectory of the 21st century.
The Bull Moose
McCain does not appear to have consciously intended his embrace of the campaign finance reform topic to be a major act of ideological heterodoxy.
But as he discovered when he ran for president in 2000, essentially all the major interest groups and players in Republican Party politics saw it as a threat to their interests. So riding high on a wave of then-unprecedented small-dollar donations and positive media coverage, McCain’s criticisms of Bush during the primary became increasingly broad criticisms of the larger universe of conservative politics. He slammed Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as “agents of intolerance” and analogized his campaign to Luke Skywalker doing battle with an evil empire of institutional interests.
McCain lost, of course, but upon returning to the Senate was a substantially changed figure. He voted against Bush’s signature 2001 tax cut (a bill that earned support from a dozen Senate Democrats) and then again against its 2003 sequel. For a brief time in 2002, it was even in vogue for pundits to tout the idea that McCain should switch parties and run for president as the leading figure of the then-ascendant hawkish wing of the Democratic Party.
Joshua Green, David Broder, Timothy Noah, and Jonathan Chait (in an article that sadly seems to be no longer available online due to turmoil at the New Republic where it ran) all made versions of this argument conceding, of course, that McCain would need to discover newfound pro-abortion rights convictions but otherwise seeing it as the logical next step.
But national security has always been the topic on which McCain has the deepest convictions, and escalating partisan conflict over the Iraq War after the 2004 election tended to push him consistently closer to the Bush administration while alienating his more progressive fans. By 2007, McCain was beating a retreat toward establishmentarian politics, and in light of Bush’s deep unpopularity by the end of his term, it became clear to Republican leaders that a nominee distanced from Bush in the public mind would be a good idea. McCain not only became the 2008 nominee but was the establishment’s favorite choice for the job — and as a candidate, he promised to permanently extend the tax cuts he’d once opposed.
McCain, of course, not only lost in 2008 but lost badly, with Barack Obama carrying such unlikely states as Indiana and North Carolina on the way to what remains the biggest presidential landslide of the past 25 years. And it was in many ways an epic bad beat. McCain was very popular on Election Day 2008, with an approval rating that far outpaced either candidate in the 2012 or 2016 elections.
It’s just that Obama was also very popular, and, more importantly, the larger Republican Party had totally discredited itself with a series of scandals, a failed war in Iraq, and then an epic economic collapse. McCain was a strong candidate swimming against a much stronger current of adverse objective circumstances. But he’d also made a risky and ultimately failed gamble with his selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to serve as his vice presidential nominee.
In some sense, taking a risky bet was the right play since he was so clearly on track to lose at the time of the national conventions that there was really no downside to picking her. But McCain has always cared deeply about his reputation as an honorable figure, and selecting a lightweight demagogue whom he barely even knew to serve a heartbeat away from the presidency was a serious blow to that reputation, especially in elite circles.
And McCain responded to the loss of both the presidential election and elite esteem by retreating back into orthodox conservatism. During its critical first two years in office, the Obama White House found no help from the one-time maverick on any topic including issues like the DREAM Act, where both earlier and later in his career he would tend to side with Democrats.
Later, in Obama’s second term, when much of the GOP establishment reacted to his 2012 reelection by deciding that Republicans had to embrace immigration reform to survive in an increasingly diverse America, McCain was back on the immigration reform bandwagon. He served as a leading member of the “Gang of Eight” comprehensive immigration reform bill that overwhelmingly passed the Senate only to be refused a vote on the House floor. And then he watched as Donald Trump stormed to obtain the GOP nomination on the precise opposite platform.
In terms of temperament, Trump and McCain are in certain respects very much cut from the same cloth in terms of having a highly personalized approach to politics and little investment in the economic policy debates that are at the core of most partisan conflict.
Trump even went so far as to directly criticize the foundational myth of McCain’s political persona, arguing that he’s not a real war hero since he was captured.
Trump, meanwhile, once described avoiding sexually transmitted diseases while cadding around in the 1970s as his “personal Vietnam,” clashed with McCain on torture, and, of course, is profoundly at odds with him on the question of Vladimir Putin and the US-Russia relationship.
Since Trump’s accession to the presidency, McCain (or, as his illness worsened, his press office) had repeatedly criticized Trump on a variety of grounds. But with one very noticeable exception, he hadn’t genuinely done much about it.
Last summer, Affordable Care Act repeal efforts were hanging in the balance on the strength of an odd notion known as “skinny repeal” that, rather than replace the ACA with some coherent alternative vision of health care, would have simply destabilized it by knocking out the individual mandate to purchase health insurance and sending premiums skyrocketing.
At the time, Republican senators generally acknowledged that this was a bad idea. The point was less to pass a bill than to pass something and move on to conference committee with the House.
“The whole emphasis is we’re trying to get something to go to conference committee with,” a Senate Republican aide told Vox’s Dylan Scott at the time. “I don’t know if it’s the main plan. But we have to get something done.”
At the literal last minute, McCain swooped in, made a dramatic thumbs-down gesture, and provided the critical third Republican vote to kill the bill.
“We Republicans have looked for a way to end [Obamacare] and replace it with something else without paying a terrible political price,” he said at the time. “We haven’t found it yet, and I’m not sure we will.”
Oddly, though, just a few months later both McCain and his fellow skinny repeal opponents Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Susan Collins (R-ME) would vote in favor of a regressive, deficit-busting tax cut that included repeal of the individual mandate. That’s fairly emblematic of Trump critics’ frustrations with McCain’s behavior in the final chapter of his political career. He had been doggedly — and seemingly quite sincerely — critical of Trump across a whole range of issues, but with relatively little efficacy on any topic.
The issue, on some level, is that while McCain’s personalistic approach to politics succeeded at its proximate goal of making him a well-regarded and frequently pivotal figure in American public life, it never quite managed to land him in the presidency. It’s very conceivable that he would have won either the 2000 or the 2004 nomination had he obtained the Republican or Democratic nominations, and he was certainly popular enough to win in 2008 had the circumstances been different. And as president, he could have left his stamp on America just as, in their very different ways, his hero TR and his nemesis Trump did. But legislating is essentially a team sport, and McCain was a genuine maverick rather than a team player — frequently at odds with his own party’s congressional leadership, uninterested in organizing a moderate bloc of his own, and certainly uninterested in enlisting as a reliable foot soldier in anyone else’s ongoing legislative products.
The result is a great American story that left its mark on a range of policy topics without having an incredibly clear throughline as a set of ideas that can or will be carried forward by a successor generation.
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