McCain is nothing like Sen. Jim Jeffords, who long had been an apostate before leaving the party three years ago. McCain has supported President Bush's war policy and is on close terms with Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. He is the GOP's better angel in exposing the congressional Republican appetite for pork, the profligate highway bill and outrageous Defense Department collusion with Boeing Co. at taxpayer expense.
What transforms McCain from a conscience into a hairshirt is his refusal to consider any adjustment toward party loyalty in a presidential election year. Two weeks ago, he presided over Senate hearings on his global warming bill that dovetails with the Democratic election-year agenda. Last week, he joined with Democratic senators to pass a budget amendment that would effectively rule out tax cuts. Because neither of these proposals has the slightest chance of becoming law, they become exercises in politics -- Democratic politics.
Worse yet is what the veterans of McCain's 2000 presidential campaign say when no reporters are around. Other Republicans have been shocked by how contemptuous they are of the president and his record. At one recent private dinner, what the former McCain campaign operatives said was hardly distinguishable from Democratic ranting against Bush. That may be a cause or a result of McCain's conduct -- or possibly a combination of both.
The hard truth is that wounds of 2000 never really have healed for John McCain. When the congressional Republican leadership is complaining about the president's inability to project any message other than the war against terrorism, McCain's ability as a Republican to reach out to America could be helpful. Notwithstanding his proclivity to cause trouble, a strong commitment to Bush would have precluded him from seeming to reach out to Kerry.