How John McCain got lost in ‘crazy base world’

TIME / YouTube Ceremony For Senator John McCain In...
TIME / YouTube

When Senator John McCain was laid to rest on Sunday at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, the nation lost one of the giants of American public life. For six decades, McCain served his nation as a naval airman, a military liaison to Capitol Hill, a congressman, a senator and as a two-time presidential candidate. His courage and sacrifice in the face of unspeakable torture in Vietnam is simply unimaginable.

His loyalty to his mentors like Democrat Mo Udall (D-AZ) and willingness to embrace proteges of his own is legendary in the Senate he cared so much about. It’s with good reason that his 2008 rival Barack Obama repeatedly called him an “American hero.” It’s no wonder Democrats and Republicans alike, from Joe Biden (D-DE) and Gary Hart (D-CO) to William Cohen (R-ME) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) called him “my friend.” And it’s no surprise that his former captors in Hanoi paid their respects to the man who once languished in agony in their prison only to later help lead the painful process of reconciliation between Vietnam and the United States.

But for many in the press, wistful for the glory days of the “Straight Talk Express” and perhaps nostalgic for a more decent era in American politics, the tributes have often verged on hagiography. (Perhaps that’s no surprise given the 2008 assessment of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, “The press loves McCain. We’re his base.”) “With tears on my cheeks,” Dana Milbank wrote in May that “John McCain is the single greatest political leader of our time.” For its part, USA Today compiled “six memorable moments when John McCain earned a reputation as a ‘maverick.’”

I would add a seventh such “Maverick Moment,” because it would later come to reveal more about John McCain the man than anyone realized at the time. After the vicious smear campaign about his adopted daughter helped cost him the 2000 South Carolina primary, McCain on February 28, 2000, delivered a powerful speech denouncing “political intolerance by any political party” as “neither a Judeo-Christian nor an American value”:

They are corrupting influences on religion and politics, and those who practice them in the name of religion or in the name of the Republican Party or in the name of America shame our faith, our party and our country.

Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right. [Emphasis mine.]

But in preparation for his second presidential run six years later, he completely walked back his courageous stand. Tail between his legs, on May 13, 2006, John McCain made the pilgrimage to Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, to make amends to the religious right for his apostasy. Having already conceded to Tim Russert that he no longer considered Jerry Falwell an “agent of intolerance,” that April John McCain admitted to the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart why:

STEWART: You’re killin’ me here. I feel like it’s a condoning of Falwell’s kind of crazymaking to some extent to have you go down there, and it strikes me as something you wouldn’t normally do. Am I wrong about that? […] You’re not freaking out on us? Are you freaking out on us? Because if you’re freaking out and you’re going into the crazy base world—are you going into crazy base world?

MCCAIN: I’m afraid so.

As it turned out, McCain had good reason to be afraid. That’s because time and time again during his 2008 campaign, John McCain traveled to “crazy base world” and stayed there. (What he didn’t do was travel back to the Daily Show until Jon Stewart’s final episode on August 6, 2015.) The lesson McCain apparently learned from his 2000 defeat at the hands of George W. Bush is that the center is where GOP would-be presidential nominees go to die. (It certainly worked in South Carolina, whose primary McCain won in 2008.) So, on abortion, taxes, immigration, judicial nominations, and so much more, John McCain abandoned his “maverick” positions of the past in his quest to secure the blessing of hard-line Republican primary voters. By 2010, McCain comically claimed “I never considered myself a maverick.”

Perhaps on no issue was McCain’s evolution—or more accurately, devolution—as dramatic as in the case of immigration reform. Throughout 2005 and 2006, John McCain along with Ted Kennedy (D-MA) led the Senate fight for comprehensive immigration reform combining a guest worker program, new paths to naturalization for the currently undocumented and improved border security. But despite its general popularity with Americans overall, the legislation was torpedoed by McCain’s own party in Congress. (That might explain Mr. Straight Talk’s March 2007 tirade against his GOP colleague from Texas, John Cornyn:  “F**k you! I know more about this than anyone else in the room.”)

It wasn’t that defeat, but the overwhelming xenophobia of the Republicans’ primary electorate that led McCain to abandon his leadership role—and principles—on immigration. As the Washington Times and Meet the Press detailed, McCain underwent a conversion on the road to the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis. As the ultra-right Times noted on January 14, 2008:

The Arizona Republican now says that, in the wake of last summer’s defeat of “comprehensive immigration reform,” he has “gotten the message” that the border must be secured before the status of illegals already in the United States can be dealt with.

During a January 30, 2008 Republican debate that Sen. McCain completely abandoned the bill he unsuccessfully championed just the previous year:

Q: At this point, if your original proposal came to a vote on the Senate floor, would you vote for it? […]

McCAIN: No, I would not, because we know what the situation is today. The people want the borders secured first.

As if that 180-degree turn wasn’t dramatic enough, during his 2010 Arizona Senate re-election campaign, McCain aired an ad in which he simply proclaimed, “Complete the danged fence.” Giving himself over to the furious tea party movement that threatened his Senate seat, the notoriously hot-headed McCain growled, “I’m madder than I’ve ever been.”

Now, if John McCain whipped himself into a lather over immigration, he tied himself in knots over taxes. During a January 2008 debate in Florida, soon-to-be doomed GOP candidate Rudy Giuliani proclaimed, “John voted against the Bush tax cuts, I think on both occasions, and sided with the Democrats.” Giuliani was right. McCain had voted against the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts which together accounted for about half of the additional deficits produced during Dubya’s tenure. The so-called “Maverick” explained why:

“I cannot in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us at the expense of middle-class Americans who need tax relief.”

In December 2007, McCain was asked by the National Review’s Rich Lowry if his opposition had been a mistake. This time, the would-be class warrior sounded like a deficit hawk:

No, because I had significant tax cuts, and there was restraint of spending included in my proposal. I saw no restraint in spending. We presided over the greatest increase in the size of government since the Great Society. Spending went completely out of control. It’s still out of control. Wasteful earmark spending is a disgrace, and it caused us to alienate our Republican base.

Nevertheless, by the time of the 2008 primaries, Senator McCain had drunk the supply side Kool Aid. “Tax cuts, starting with Kennedy, as we all know, increase revenues.” Now only was McCain’s claim untrue, but his own 2008 tax plan would have produced red ink as far as the eye can see. As the Center for American Progress explained at the time, McCain’s proposals made George W. Bush look like Karl Marx:

Our analysis suggests that the McCain plan shares five key characteristics of Bush policies. First, it is enormously expensive, costing more than $2 trillion over the next decade and essentially doubling the Bush tax cuts. Second, the McCain plan would predominantly benefit the most fortunate taxpayers, offering two new massive tax cuts for corporations and delivering 58 percent of its benefits to the top 1 percent of taxpayers. The Bush tax cuts provide 31 percent of their benefits to the top 1 percent of taxpayers.

Third, the McCain tax plan continues the shift of the tax burden from investment income onto earned income. Fourth, the plan not only fails to address current tax shelter problems in the tax code but in fact will lead to increased sheltering. Fifth, McCain cannot pay for his tax cuts without massive reductions in Social Security, Medicare, or other key programs that benefit the vast majority of Americans.

That John McCain’s tax plan was cut from the same cloth as Bush’s budget-busting windfalls for the wealthy should have come as a surprise to no one. As analyses by the Arizona Republic, the Washington Post and Congressional Quarterly detailed, McCain “almost never thwarted his party’s objectives.” CQ and the Post gave him “party loyalty” ratings of 90 and 88 percent, respectively, “tying him with South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham ahead of 29 other Senate Republicans.” It’s no wonder political scientist Keith Poole of the University of California-San Diego concluded:

“He is a conservative who votes conservative on most issues. By no means is he a liberal or even a moderate.”

That was certainly the case when it came to abortion—at least after 1999. Heading into the 2000 presidential election, Senator McCain sure sounded like a pro-choicer on Roe v. Wade:

“I’d love to see a point where it is irrelevant, and could be repealed because abortion is no longer necessary. But certainly in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roe v. Wade, which would then force X number of women in America to [undergo] illegal and dangerous operations.”

Alas, that was then. Heading into 2008, McCain had learned that crazy base world will not accept such blasphemies. As he explained to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in 2006:

“I don’t think a constitutional amendment is probably going to take place, but I do believe that it’s very likely or possible that the Supreme Court should – could overturn Roe v. Wade, which would then return these decisions to the states, which I support.”

McCain’s extremist makeover was complete by the time he faced off with Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential debates. In their final encounter that October, the “Maverick” used “air quotes” to show his disdain for “the health of the mother”:

“Just again, the example of the eloquence of Sen. Obama. He’s [for] health for the mother. You know, that’s been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything. That’s the extreme pro-abortion position, quote, ‘health.'”

Speaking of extreme positions, McCain was no stranger to them when it came to the president’s judicial nominations. In October 2016, the Arizona senator warned he and his Republican colleagues would “be united against any Supreme Court nominee that Hillary Clinton, if she were president, would put up.” Of course, by this time, McCain and his fellow obstructionists had already set records for blocking President Obama’s picks for the federal bench, allowing Donald Trump to inherit double the number of judicial vacancies Barack Obama found eight years earlier.

Now, if this kind of scorched-earth politics from John McCain seems out-of-character, it is—provided you stopped paying attention in 2008. That’s because when George W. Bush sat in the Oval Office, McCain was part of the bipartisan “Gang of 14” which preserved the judicial filibuster. As you may recall, Senate Republicans were irked that a handful of Bush nominees had been scuttled by Democrats and threatened to “go nuclear” to end the practice. But as Adam White and Kevin White predicted in the Weekly Standard in January 2008, conservatives would soon come to love the judicial filibuster McCain and his gang had preserved:

Finally, it must be noted that McCain’s opposition to the nuclear option did not merely serve short-term conservative interests in the specific context of Bush’s nominations; rather, it served long-term conservative interests in the federal bench generally. As McCain has warned, there will come a day–perhaps soon–when a Democratic president will nominate decidedly non-conservative justices and judges, and a Democratic Senate majority will want desperately to confirm them. When that moment arrives, conservatives will call on the Republican minority to utilize every tool in the Senate minority playbook to thwart those nominations–especially the filibuster…preservation of the filibuster threat may ultimately prevent the ascent of Supreme Court judges that Laura Ingraham and Rick Santorum would dearly regret. {Emphasis mine.]

McCain’s gymnastic flip-flops and public policy contortionist acts were not the stuff of firm principle, unbreakable resolve, or headstrong rebellion. Alas, they were the actions of a common politician, albeit a very ambitious one. But while they often gave lie to his self-proclaimed Maverick label, they can’t obscure a central legacy of John McCain the politician. McCain was a great American, but he was often wrong, sometimes catastrophically so.

In his powerful and moving final letter to the American people, Senator McCain to his great credit acknowledged as much:

I’ve tried to serve our country honorably. I’ve made mistakes, but I hope my love for America will be weighed favorably against them.

Favorably, indeed. Especially given John McCain’s willingness to take responsibility for those mistakes, or at least some of them. As you’ll recall, McCain was implicated in the 1989 Keating Five scandal, part of the savings and loan crisis that ultimately cost American taxpayers some $300 billion to remedy. McCain, after all, had received over $100,000 in donations from Charles Keating and his Lincoln Financial associates. While Keating went to jail, the Senate Ethics Committee only reprimanded McCain for exercising “poor judgment.” As he prepared for his first presidential run in 1999, Senator McCain acknowledged the gravity of his failure:

“The fact is, it was the wrong thing to do, and it will be on my tombstone and deservedly so.”

Then there’s the war in Iraq. As Politico reported in March:

In his new memoir, he concedes that the war in Iraq he fought so hard to launch and then escalate now “can’t be judged as anything other than a mistake, a very serious one, and I have to accept my share of the blame for it.”

Gratifying (and overdue) as that admission was, it does not begin to address the magnitude of the world-historical calamity that was the invasion of Iraq and McCain’s role in cheerleading it. In 2014, McCain proclaimed, “I predicted what was going to happen in Iraq.” In reality, he could not have been more wrong. The man who accused Iraq of the 2001 anthrax attack and declared, “Next up, Baghdad” on January 2, 2002, while standing on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, was tragically mistaken at almost every turn. Ahmed Chalabi wasn’t a “patriot” with his country’s “best interests” at heart. Americans were not “greeted as liberators” after a military engagement which “will not be very difficult.” The United States did not find weapons of mass destruction despite McCain’s remaining “confident” as late as June 2003.

Meanwhile, it was not true in April 2003 that “nobody in Afghanistan threatens the United States of America.” In October 2005, it was similarly false that “Afghanistan, we don’t read about anymore, because it’s succeeded.” (John McCain boasted he would “follow Bin Laden to the gates of Hell,” but mocked Senator Barack Obama for proclaiming as president he would order unilateral U.S. strikes in Pakistan to do so.) McCain was wrong about Al Qaeda ties to Iran, wrong about sectarian conflict, and wrong to say that “U.S. troops could be in Iraq for ‘a thousand years’ or ‘a million years,’ as far as he was concerned.” Nevertheless, John McCain had the temerity to take to the Senate floor in January 2012 to attack President Obama over the sectarian carnage then escalating:

“I believe that history will judge this president’s leadership with scorn and disdain, with the scorn and disdain that it deserves.”

It is, John McCain who, along with George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and their entire national security team, who deserve scorn and disdain for the disaster in Iraq. Yet, McCain sadly earned additional derision for the mistake he refused (perhaps understandably) to publicly concede: the selection of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate.

In his final months, John McCain criticized “spurious, half-baked nationalism” and slammed “bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the Internet.” He warned, “We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe.” But this dark side of the American character given voice by Donald Trump was already on full display during the McCain-Palin rallies in the fall of 2008. If McCain’s defense of Obama that October was one of his finest moments, it was overshadowed by the ominous atmosphere of his crowds. CNN warned that “Rage Rising on the McCain Campaign Trail,” as the Washington Post reported October 9, 2008 article titled “Anger Is Crowd’s Overarching Emotion at McCain Rally”:

There were shouts of “Nobama” and “Socialist” at the mention of the Democratic presidential nominee. There were boos, middle fingers turned up and thumbs turned down as a media caravan moved through the crowd Thursday for a midday town hall gathering featuring John McCain and Sarah Palin.

To put it another way, Sarah Palin was the gateway drug to Donald Trump. As McCain aide Nicolle Wallace lamented, Palin was “Trump before Trump.” And accountability for elevating Sarah Palin and that politics of know-nothingism and hate unavoidably rests with John McCain.

John McCain now rests in peace. Americans should be grateful for a true hero and revere the memory of man who gave his all for his nation for sixty years. Perhaps his mistakes, as Karen Tumulty suggested in her Washington Post obituary, were those of a man “driven throughout by a code of honor that both defined and haunted him.” Haunted him—and haunted many of us—because of what he had been and what he might have become had he not felt compelled to go to “crazy base world.”

But he did go there—willingly—and left his “maverick” persona behind. That’s why many of us who opposed his politics and philosophy can nevertheless admire, respect and honor John McCain, even as those emotions are tinged with disappointment. As his late colleague and friend Ted Kennedy said of his own brother in 1968, John McCain “need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life.” At the end of the day, that’s all John McCain was fairly asking for when hoped “my love for America will be weighed favorably against” his mistakes.

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