Party Boy

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.”

McCain, of course, suffered a similarly stinging defeat in 2000 at the hands of George W. Bush. Back then, McCain returned to the Senate and behaved almost like a liberal, going on the attack against Bush and other Republicans. That his reaction to being whipped by Obama is to lurch in the opposite direction—toward reflexive, rock-ribbed conservatism—might seem strange at first. But the truth is that McCain’s ideological moorings have always been less distinct or meaningful than his sense of his own virtue. In both 2000 and 2008, he was beaten by men he considered his inferiors on every level that matters to him: honor, guts, and the sacrifices endured for their country. For McCain, opposing the lesser figures who bested him in combat seems to come as naturally as breathing.

But McCain also has other, more pedestrian but no less pertinent reasons for acting the way that he has. Back home in Arizona, for the first time in years, McCain is facing the prospect of a serious primary challenge from archconservative former congressman J. D. Hayworth. How serious? According to a Rasmussen Reports poll conducted last month, McCain holds a narrow lead over Hayworth, 45 to 43 percent, in a hypothetical matchup.

Though Hayworth has yet to declare his candidacy, he has made no bones about his leaning in that direction. And given the drift of the GOP right now, the smart betting is that he will join a virtual conga line of grassroots challengers to entrenched party incumbents in next year’s midterm races.

Which brings us to the larger dimensions of the matter at hand. Certainly among the most salient and least predicted features of Obama’s first year in office has been that, John McCain notwithstanding, the faces and the voices of Republican opposition have not been those of elected officials. Instead, to a very large degree, the party’s image has been defined by three individuals: Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, and Sarah Palin. No doubt these figures have energized the GOP’s base in a way that few could have imagined. But equally clear is that they’ve done zilch to broaden the party’s appeal or help it escape the demographic ditch—the party of the old, the white, the male, and the southern—into which it’s fallen.

Among the leaders of mainstream Republicanism, no one would seem to have been better suited to challenge the influence of the party’s extreme elements than McCain. But when Cheney slams Obama as a ditherer for taking his time before sending tens of thousands of soldiers into harm’s way, McCain sagely nods his head. When Palin invokes death panels, McCain joins in the fun—and then praises the work of delusional fantasy that is her memoir. As for Limbaugh, the man who once extended his “apologies to Bozo, Chuckles, and Krusty” after calling the talk-radio gasbag a clown now declares, “Mr. Limbaugh is a voice of a significant portion of our conservative movement in America … He’s part of the political landscape, and he plays a role.”

McCain’s accommodationism of the GOP’s lunatic fringe is the clearest evidence that chief among the factors motivating him this year has been fear: fear that the passions now raging on the right might well consume him. On one level, this fear—which is widely shared among sensible Republicans in every corner of the land—is natural. On another, it’s deeply depressing. But most of all, it is self-defeating. “We will only be successful again as a national party when we do what the Tories have done in Britain,” says a leading Republican campaign strategist. “McCain could help lead the party in that direction or at least give air cover to those who want to go that route. But he’s not doing it.”

For Obama, the absence of that kind of leadership on the Republican side has been among the greatest blessings in an otherwise trying year. The wild fulminations on the GOP’s right flank have caused the president no end of headaches. But they are nothing compared to the migraines he’d be suffering if a few courageous Republicans stood up to the Cheney-Limbaugh-Palin caucus and began to revive the party as a serious force with broad electoral appeal. Though it would never occur to Obama, he should send McCain a thank-you note. Not for the first time, he owes him much—and McCain has earned it.


Party Boy