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What Would a Maverick Do?

The McCain Brain: Needs several different voices to keep sane.  

If the emotional fallout from the loss to Barack Obama was sublimated for McCain, it wasn’t so with Salter, who retreated to a cottage on the Maine coast and began a period of existential rumination over the direction of his life, say friends and associates. One Washington friend worried that he was falling “into this place of anger and sadness that he would not be able to get back from.”

After the chaos and dysfunction of the campaign, Salter made an important personal decision: He would continue to write speeches for McCain, and collect a check, but he would no longer fight McCain on political matters. He wanted to try his hand at writing fiction.

“There are fewer people who are willing to stand up and speak truth to power and tell McCain he’s being an asshole,” says an ex-staffer in McCain’s 2008 campaign. “And the chief person who did that is Mark Salter—and if you do that for long enough, you lose your capacity to fight. You’re totally exhausted by it.”

With Salter receding (and Schmidt and Weaver, both of whom had been committed to Salter’s vision of McCain, gone), McCain became a simpler creature. To a person, ex-advisers and staffers to John McCain describe the same man: Impulsive, emotional, dependent to a fault on the advice of others, but unwilling or unable to resolve infighting, he lets mismanagement corrupt his best intentions, winning elections and congressional victories almost despite himself.

“One thing McCain simply will not do is come down on one side or another when he’s got conflicts among staffers and advisers,” says a former adviser in Arizona. “That’s a bad problem.”

The presidential campaign had magnified these weaknesses, leaving a trail of wounded and disillusioned McCain aides who felt they’d seen the worst of American politics, the heart of McCain’s darkness. One former McCain insider says the election left a “cancer on their souls.”

The cycle of dysfunction continues even today: In May, McCain’s Arizona campaign manager, Shiree Verdone, left over internal disputes with Mark Buse, so irate that she refused for a time to take McCain’s phone calls. (Through a spokesperson, she declined to comment.)

“He’s angry at Obama, at former staff, at his fellow Americans,” says a strategist. “He’s angry.”

In the last three years, the one adviser who has survived, and even thrived, is Rick Davis. A veteran lobbyist and consultant known for jet-setting with his wealthy Russian and Middle East clientele, he is gregarious and sociable and easygoing, the opposite of Salter, the taciturn chain-smoker whose best friends are reporters. (Davis didn’t return calls.)

The choice of Palin as McCain’s vice-presidential nominee, encouraged and vetted by Davis, seemed to crystallize his influence, for better or worse. And as panic overtook McCain in early 2010, it would be Davis who channeled it into a tactical short game, advising him to co-opt Hayworth’s political turf by tacking into his positions, out-tea-partying Hayworth on immigration. Consequently, McCain’s Arizona tail wagged his Washington dog: McCain would soon reverse or greatly reel in his previous positions on torture, on cap and trade, on gays in the military, and, finally, crucially, on immigration. “Rick Davis carries the most influence with John,” says a McCain intimate. “Salter’s on the outside.”

Thus began the lurch to the right that has so captivated national media—the ones he used to call “my base”—and horrified the liberals who took McCain as an example of the right kind of conservative. But others defend him. “Does John McCain move around occasionally on issues?” asks Wes Gullett, a former McCain aide in Arizona and longtime supporter. “Yes. He’s fighting a fight. He’s a fighter. He goes to the sound of the battle.”

But McCain didn’t always like the sound he was hearing. An adviser in Arizona who knows McCain well says, “He doesn’t like doing what he’s doing.”

Which, for this person and several I spoke with, makes McCain’s transparent pandering all the more confusing: “If ever there was a political environment in which you want to be a maverick, this is it,” he says. “Why would he choose this time, with all the dynamics going on in the election, to deny what everyone knows is true? Sometimes he just checks out and you wonder what the hell is going on.”

McCain seemed to be wondering, too. When Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s old seat and agreed to campaign for McCain in Arizona, McCain could hardly believe he needed a political neophyte from the Northeast to help him draw crowds in his own state, especially one who had declined McCain’s invitation to campaign for him in Massachusetts (fearing McCain’s Establishment taint). After a rally at Grand Canyon University, McCain was annoyed when Brown tried giving him campaign advice while they drove in a car together. Three nights later, Brown and McCain were scheduled to have dinner, but McCain canceled.