There is a new round of “where have you gone, John McCain?” liberal commentary starting up. I used to find this amusing, but it is all based on a profound misunderstanding of McCain the politician. Recently, McCain has been making a fool of himself by repudiating the maverick label he once clung to for dear life in years past, and to head off a strong primary challenge from Hayward he has begun pretending that he has a problem with illegal immigration. This has led to quite a few liberals declaring that McCain is sacrificing his integrity for political purposes, but this gives him far too much credit. This takes for granted that McCain once had integrity as a politician that he could still destroy.
As the presidential campaign showed once again, McCain’s actual acquiantance with the substance of any policy, especially domestic policy, was extremely sketchy and poor. During at least the last ten years he never adopted a domestic policy position because he had studied the issue carefully and determined that a certain kind of legislation made the most practical sense or was the best expression of certain guiding principles. He determined that the fastest way to get attention and to aggrandize himself was by breaking with his party in melodramatic fashion over issues that happened to appeal to mainstream media journalists and pundits. The latter played along because they liked what he was saying, and they wanted to reward a Republican politician for strongly disagreeing with his party. They helped McCain to invent the myth of his being a “maverick,” when he was really the most predictable establishment “centrist” on almost every important issue. It helped that he always frames his disagreements with others in the most obnoxious, moralizing way possible, so that he is always playing the heroic crusader against corruption and his opponents are tainted villains on the take.
McCain’s primary fight with Bush in 1999-2000 seems to lend substance to the “maverick” myth, but this was misleading. McCain ran his campaign arguing against movement conservatives and rank-and-file Republicans because it was useful for the moment. This provided him with the free media coverage that gave his campaign enough oxygen to last for as long as it did, and it raised him to the level of a national Republican figure who would be the heir apparent for the next nomination. After a few years playing the aggrieved loser and critic of some of Bush’s domestic policies, McCain began to lose his liberal admirers as he became more and more reliably a team player.
On immigration, he and Bush were on the same page and were working for the same goals. This worked well for McCain in that it allowed him to play the part of a Bush supporter who was also advancing an amnesty policy that establishment “centrists” everywhere applauded. As 2007 wore on and his early presidential campaign was crumbling around him, he had to pivot away from his record on immigration and claim that he had “learned” why most Republicans were so furious with the legislation and with him. This didn’t persuade many people on the right, but it reduced his vulnerability on the issue because he refused to make it an important part of his campaign beginning in the fall of 2007.
Quite a few mainstream pundits completely misunderstood why McCain’s primary campaign had been faltering, and some began absurdly praising him for his supposedly principled support for the “surge” despite the damage they imagined this was doing to him. Of course, he supported the “surge” because he had been the hawkish interventionists’ preferred candidate for years, and because he had made a habit of supporting troop escalations regardless of circumstances going back at least to Kosovo in 1999. It didn’t hurt that the vast majority of Republicans remained convinced of the rightness of the war and had immediately gone into full purge mode against anyone who questioned or opposed the “surge.” During the primaries, he had no scruples about making the most outrageous claims against his opponents, including the lie that Romney favored “surrender” in Iraq, and we saw the same habits emerge during the general election campaign as well.
McCain reacted to his defeat in 2008 in much the same way that he reacted to losing to Bush in 2000: he became a petulant, angry and frequent critic. Of necessity, this meant that McCain had to align himself closely with the anti-Obama stands of his party. At first glance, this seems to be at odds with how McCain conducted himself in the past. There was a time when he was the embodiment of “centrism” and enthusiasm for bipartisanship, but that was when Republicans were in the majority and McCain’s personal advantage dictated breaking with them. Now McCain’s personal advantage dictates that he become a reliable partisan and that he must tack sharply to the right to prevent the rank-and-file conservatives he has spent much of his career insulting from defeating him in the primary. All of this is by way of saying that almost all of the liberal praise for McCain in the past was a product of McCain’s adoption of positions that liberals favored. Back then, he had high-minded principle, integrity and political courage because he said things that matched up with liberal assumptions. Now that the political landscape has changed and McCain’s calculations have changed to match it, he has supposedly betrayed “core principles.” Of course, these “core principles” that liberals thought that he had were nothing of the kind.