John McCain is headed back to the U.S. Senate, perhaps a changed and chastened man, and perhaps not.
But the manner in which he secured his Senate seat for another six years is instructive, and not only for moderate Republicans facing off against conservatives and tea party candidates, but for 2012.
Realizing his career was on the line, McCain began to run attack ads against his rival, ex-Rep. J.D. Hayworth, an authentic conservative, while J.D. was still a radio talk show host.
When J.D. announced, and surged to within five points of McCain, the senator did not hesitate to call in Sarah Palin, though his own staff aides from the 2008 campaign had been trashing her as a lightweight and principal cause of McCain's defeat.
McCain then repudiated his famous "maverick" moniker as a misnomer, as it implied that he had been First RINO (Republican in name only), who had relished siding with Democrats against his own party -- a practice that had endeared McCain to the mainstream media.
McCain then joined Sen. Jon Kyl in proposing a 10-point border security plan calling for a fence and troops. John Amnesty of 2007 was now doing a passable imitation of Tom Tancredo 2008.
McCain used much of his $20 million war chest to savage J.D. on radio and TV, then created an ad with him walking the border with no-nonsense Sheriff Paul Babeu, saying, "Complete the dang fence!" and Babeu responding, "Senator, you're one of us."
While J.D. ran a courageous campaign, he never got the support to which his conservative record entitled him, and lost by 24 points.
McCain's victory has cost him dearly with a national press that loathed the campaign he conducted. Many concur with the Democratic National Committee, which charged McCain with selling his soul to win his renomination. From the network studios in New York to the newsrooms of Washington, McCain is no longer Lancelot, but Mordred.
Yet, he did what he had to do to keep his job. And he has kept his job for six more years.
Had he been as ruthlessly opportunistic and pragmatic in his run against Barack Obama as he was in the campaign against J.D., McCain would be president now.
Indeed, had McCain led the battle for border security in 2008, conceded that NAFTA had not worked, called for its renegotiation and an industrial policy to create manufacturing jobs in America, and taken Obama apart as a man of the radical left, comfortable in the church of a racist preacher, McCain would have been leading his country this year, not fighting to save his Senate seat.
Instead, the stunning selection of Palin aside, which sent his campaign surging, McCain ran a race that seemed designed to lose gracefully and maintain his standing with the Washington press.
As he has seen how softball failed him in 2008, but hardball succeeded for him in 2010, one wonders if McCain has any regrets. And when he gets back to Washington, will he revert to the maverick for whom the press fell so hard in 2000?
For conservatives and tea party activists, the lesson to be taken away from McCain's campaign is clear. Confrontation and conflict are not to be avoided, but sought out.
And, as one looks around the political landscape, the issues that are turning toward the tea party and populist right are astonishing.
Even Democrats are now parroting the right on border security and amnesty. Voters are overwhelmingly endorsing English as the national language. Affirmative action is being voted down in deep blue states like Michigan, California and Washington. Pro-life is gaining among the young. Abortion on demand has lost it feminist luster.
Same-sex marriage has been rejected in all 31 states where it has been on the ballot. Even Obama refuses to endorse it and back up the California federal court, and now appears suddenly hesitant to impose the values of Fire Island on Parris Island.
The election of 2010 will surely turn on the economy -- jobs, deficits, debt. So, too, may the election of 2012.
But there are other aces and face cards in play.
But if the GOP takes the advice of its establishment, and the neocons who seek power to start another war, and walks away from cultural, social and moral issues, which are far more popular than the party itself, folks who care about the character of the country and national identity should walk away from that party, and find outliers who will pick up the banner and carry it forward.
Americans motivated by causes need to maintain their freedom and independence of both parties, forming what George W. Bush liked to call "alliances of the willing."
If the tea party has taught us anything, it is that the mindset which says, "Lead, follow or get out of the way," is the quintessential ingredient of political success and future progress.