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Party Boy

Is McCain attacking Obama and toeing the GOP line out of principle? Or for revenge against the man who beat him?

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Illustration by André Carrilho  

The Senate debate over health-care reform had just begun when John McCain took to the well of the upper chamber and offered his party’s first proposed amendment: to strip the Democratic bill of its proposed $487 billion in Medicare reductions. “All of these are cuts in the obligations that we have assumed and are the rightful benefits that people have earned,” McCain intoned. “I will eagerly look forward to hearing from the authors of this legislation as to how they can possibly achieve half a trillion dollars in cuts without impacting existing Medicare programs negatively and eventually lead[ing] to rationing of health care in this country.”

For anyone who followed the 2008 presidential campaign in any detail, the McCain amendment surely caused a double take so severe that it induced a case of whiplash. A little more than a year ago, please recall, the Republican nominee was pushing a health-care plan that revolved around giving tax credits to voters to help them buy insurance, all the while pledging that the scheme would be budget-neutral. And just how did he propose to pull that off? Glad you asked. By offsetting the cost of the tax credits with $1.3 trillion in cuts over ten years to—wait for it—Medicare and Medicaid.

Heaven knows that in politics, consistency is the hobgoblin of almost no one. Yet in terms of absurdity and hypocrisy, McCain’s gambit was pretty far off the charts. And, more to the point, in its animating spirit and ultimate objective (to deep-six the health-care bill), the move was a perfect reflection of the Arizona senator’s behavior in 2009. In a year when the oppositionalism of Republicans toward the agenda of the new Democratic president has been nearly total, no elected official has embodied that posture more completely than McCain. For eleven months, the erstwhile maverick has stood athwart Obamaism, yelling “Stop!”

As a matter of political character, McCain’s stance has been revealing in itself. But what interests me more is what his performance—and the dynamics underlying it—says about the state of the Republican Party in the Obama era. About how, faced with a moment when what was clearly called for was reassessment and reinvention, the GOP has plunged headlong into a strategy of nihilism. And why, for all the apparent short-term gains produced by that approach, the party remains mired in a world of long-term hurt.

That McCain would wind up as a consistent thorn in Obama’s side didn’t seem at all inevitable in the wake of the contest between them. Less than two weeks after Election Day, the victor and the vanquished sat down together in Chicago to talk about how they might work together in the months ahead. A sunny joint statement was released. Smiley photographs were snapped. When a reporter asked McCain if he would aid Obama, the Republican’s reply was a model of hopeful brevity: “Obviously.”

No sensible person, having observed the harshness with which McCain conducted his campaign or the scorn he betrayed for his youthful rival, took such statements at face value. Yet even among Obama’s advisers, there was hope that on a discreet range of issues—national security, financial reform, immigration, climate change—McCain might prove a modest ally. In his 22 years in the Senate, after all, McCain had famously erected a reputation on two pillars: bi-partisan bridge-building and a disregard for the orthodoxies of his party. And though that image was overblown, for sure, it wasn’t total bullshit.

Since then, however, sightings of the old McCain have been few and far between. On display instead has been a McCain of relentless recalcitrance, vitriol, and unwavering party loyalty. A McCain who denounced Obama’s stimulus program as “generational theft”—and then proposed an alternative composed of almost nothing but tax cuts. A McCain who scolded Obama to his face for being “leisurely” in his Afghanistan decision—then trashed Obama’s target date for withdrawal, despite having accepted a similar “time horizon” when it came to the Iraq surge. Who declined to repudiate conservative nonsense about health-care reform leading to “death panels”—then raised that specter again last month on the Senate floor. Who, despite years of defying the GOP’s know-nothingism on global warming, has refused to join his pals Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham in working on a bi-partisan climate bill—calling their efforts “horrendous.” Who has been praised by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for having been “a fabulous team player.”

One explanation for all this is psychic: that McCain, a mercurial figure at the best of times, is acting out his embitterment over his loss on the public stage. “He’s just angry,” says a longtime counselor of the senator’s. “It takes defeated presidential candidates some time to deal with their loss. He hasn’t yet, and it shows.”


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