Brian Birdnow

Last week the never-ending carnival known as American politics witnessed the return of one of its most talented barkers, the esteemed Arizona Senator and former Republican Presidential candidate John McCain. It may be inaccurate to speak of McCain’s return, since he had never actually left. More precisely, we are witnessing the return of John McCain, the media darling, and the liberals favorite self-styled conservative Republican.

We know this as the result of a puff piece written by Washington Post political writer Dana Milbank, who interviewed McCain at the Russell Senate Office Building on Monday July 22nd. Milbank singled McCain out for fulsome praise, starting with relating a McCain joke, which purportedly showed that in a poll the American people ranked Congress less favorably than the prospect of a full colonoscopy. There is, as yet, no way of knowing how Obamacare will affect the colonoscopy market, but no matter. Milbank likes the punch line wherein McCain says that he intends to make Congress more popular than a colonoscopy.

Milbank then moves into the meat of his essay. He waxes rhapsodic over McCain’s comments during their interview. The Senator praised President Obama’s race-baiting speech of last Friday on the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman imbroglio and proposed a review of “stand-your-ground” laws. McCain is simply grandstanding here because he knows that the Senate has no authority for forcing changes in state criminal laws. If he doesn’t know this he should be forced to take a remedial course in Constitution 101.

Mr. Milbank then goes on to give a recitation of McCain’s latest and greatest hits. McCain, “Brokered a deal averting a procedural meltdown in the Senate over the filibuster.” Yes, McCain arranged for another Republican surrender, which delights Milbank to no end. He goes on to label McCain as, “…a key figure in drafting the bi-partisan immigration bill that cleared the Senate” making no mention of the fact that McCain’s 2007 attempt to grant immigration amnesty helped lead to the GOP election debacle the following year. Finally DM credits McCain for referring to some of his Republican Senatorial colleagues as “wacko birds”, which is, of course, music to a Democratic journalist’s ears. Milbank has not, however, been so generous in his praise of anyone who has had the temerity to speak ill of President Obama, Hillary Clinton, or Nancy Pelosi. Milbank finishes his introduction with a flourish: “All of this is to say the Mac is Back. Again” The tribute then kicks into high gear, but the reader can find this further down the page.

Let us, in the interest of understanding the unique place that Senator McCain occupies on the current political merry-go-round, examine this man and his career, perhaps using this as a window into his mind and motives. Every student of American politics is aware of John McCain and his admirable, even heroic record in the Viet Nam War. The man spent years in the Hanoi Hilton and other prison camps living in ghastly conditions that would have broken many strong individuals and he has earned the thanks of all Americans. McCain entered public life, winning a seat in Congress in 1982 and succeeded to the Senate seat held by the legendary Arizonan, Barry Goldwater four years later.

In his public life McCain has fashioned a voting record that is undeniably conservative. The Club For Growth, the non-partisan free market organ, has given McCain an 85% favorability rating for his full career, and they ranked him at 91% favorably for the last complete congressional session in 2012. The Club has ranked McCain as the seventh best of all U.S. Senators in terms of dedication to free market principles. Other conservative groups, including those that figure social issues into their calculations rate McCain slightly less highly that the free market groups, but he still grades out in the 80% favorable range. What do we make of a man who builds a stoutly conservative voting record, but speaks dismissively of his fellow conservatives, who stands as a law and order type but winks at massive law breaking on the open Mexican-American border, and offers odes to the greatness of an incompetent President from the opposition party, after regularly tweaking the nose of the 43rd President, who happened to be a fellow Republican? It is certainly fair to ask whether John McCain has any political principles that he will not compromise.

The Milbank piece raises this question in a roundabout fashion and points out, after eliciting a number of McCain quotes on the issue that the Senator resisted his own Republican Party when they had a numerical superiority during the Bush years, even if that majority was razor-thin. McCain said that he turned his antagonism against the Democrats after they took back power, and now that we have divided government he sees his fellow Republicans as a problem, once again, because, “…they didn’t come here to get something done, but to prevent anything from getting done.” He cited health care, the budget, and immigration as examples. One can read this as a case of McCain wanting a terrible health care bill rather than none, a $ 4 Trillion dollar budget rather than spending cuts, and an amnesty bill instead of enforcement of the world’s most liberal immigration laws. This seems to indicate that McCain will inevitably adopt positions that are cross-wise with the orthodoxy of the moment. Why? Does Senator McCain consider himself a professional contrarian? Does he like to take an unpopular position for the sake of mere argument? If that is the case he should retire to an Arizona college and take a position teaching logic in the philosophy department.

When we attempt to get a handle on McCain and his motives we must conclude that he is most interested in garnering praise from the likes of Milbank and the Washington Post, and all of the brethren at the New York Times. McCain sees himself in the role once played by Senator John C. Danforth, another “me-too” Republican. Danforth, the former Missouri GOP Senator, was only too happy to be known during his 1976-1994 tenure as “The Conscience of the Senate.” McCain has fashioned this role for himself after earning high praise back in 1999-2000 as the driver of the “Straight Talk Express.” He now votes a generally conservative line, although not always, and never without a highly public soul-searching about what is really good for the country, implying all the while that his fellow Republicans couldn’t care less about such considerations. If this is what McCain is angling for the Milbank piece shows that it is working. According to Mr. Milbank, “…McCain has arguably turned himself into the most important legislator in a generation…” and stated “McCain…seemed to relish his return to the indispensable man role.” Milbank ended his piece with an old-fashioned rouser: “The important thing is not where McCain has been but that he’s back. He’s needed more than ever.” McCain’s furnace is now stoked to its maximum and his boilers are ready to burst!

The classic philosophers teach us that virtue is important in our leaders (Anthony Wiener take note). Most philosophical schools believe that humility is preferable to pride. Plato, Aristotle and Machiavelli have all discoursed on the dangers of vanity in a nation’s political leaders. Whether an ideal republic, a polis, or a principality the state risks great danger when the political class seeks the adulation of the media, and the crowd. A politician who lives for such things is in public life for all the wrong reasons. Senator McCain, we thank you for your great services to our country, but now it’s time to retire.


Brian Birdnow

Brian E. Birdnow is a historian and teaches at a university in the St. Louis area.