Arizona Senator and self-proclaimed maverick John McCain raised eyebrows this week with declaration in Newsweek that, "I never considered myself a maverick." But as it turns out, this new role for the failed 2008 GOP presidential candidate isn't his second incarnation, but his fifth. In a thirty year career, John McCain has ping-ponged from Goldwater conservative to renegade Republican to neocon Bush bootlicker and, two years ago, the campaign 2008 schizophrenic. And now in a desperate attempt to hold onto his Senate seat, he has introduced McCain 5.0, the Tea Party Edition.
Facing a primary threat from the tea-bagging right in the form of radio host J.D. Hayworth, the angriest man in politics has rushed to co-opt its populist fury. In December, McCain reached out to the Tea Party activists to show that he shared their rage:
"There's not a lot of happy people out there, so you see tea parties, and you see people who are madder than they've ever been in their life. And frankly, I'm madder than I've ever been."
By last week, the transformation was almost complete. McCain's former running mate and Tea Party heartthrob Sarah Palin joined him on stage to attest to his Tea Bag bona fides. (Parroting McCain's own Colbert Report joke about the lesson he learned at Valley Forge to "clean your muskets," Palin quipped that "some may claim that John was there at that first Tea Party.") But while declaring that "nobody's going to dub him Miss Congeniality," Palin kept referring to McCain's Maverick past that so infuriates the already furious Tea Partiers:
"We've come a long way from the 2008 campaign. It was an honor to stand beside him in 2008, and it's an honor to stand beside him now, to ask that you, Arizona, for the sake of your state, for the sake of our country, that you send the maverick back to the United States Senate."
So McCain this week announced not only that the Maverick is dead, but never was. As Newsweek described it:
"Maverick" is a mantle McCain no longer claims; in fact, he now denies he ever was one. "I never considered myself a maverick," he told me. "I consider myself a person who serves the people of Arizona to the best of his abilities." Yet here was Palin, urging her fans four times in 15 minutes to send McCain the Maverick back to Washington.
The Real McCain is a devastating account of John McCain's transformation from ersatz GOP rebel to, as Schecter bluntly phrased it, "whore for the Bush administration." Starting with McCain's February 2007 visit to the National Religious Broadcasters convention to reach out to those he once deemed "agents of intolerance," The Real McCain takes readers on a tjourney of John McCain's endless reversals on the road to the White House. From abortion, supply side tax cuts and the religious right to benefits for the troops, detainee torture and the complete post-Keating Five embrace of the K Street lobbying machine and so many more, Schecter recounts McCain time and again swapping principle for political expediency. (In a chapter titled "McCain Has Left the Building," Schecter approvingly cites a high ranking Senate staffer who aptly summed it up, "Whenever we see anyone wearing their flip-flops, we say, 'I see you have your McCains on today.'")
To trace the twists and U-turns of McCain's political career, Schecter builds on Jacob Weisberg's notion of the Three McCains. ("McCain was not always a moderate, tolerant character," Weisberg famously said, "He was a conservative before he was a liberal before he became a conservative again.") In The Real McCain, the Arizona Senator emerges as a piece of buggy software, with each successive version exposing new flaws while becoming ever harder to understand.
As Schecter recounts, version 1.0 was the Goldwater libertarian of McCain's early years in the House and Senate. But in the run-up to the 2000 election, McCain found a new niche and created a new persona to outflank George W. Bush and Steve Forbes during the Republican primaries. As he put it, "McCain seemed to spot his best chance as staking the out the position of the moderate Republican - McCain 2.0."
That McCain, the maverick of the "Straight Talk Express," cemented his status as a media darling which no development to contrary since seems able to dislodge from the minds of the press corps. It's no accident MSNBC's Chris Matthewsacknowledged:
"The press loves McCain. We're his base."
Alas, that McCain, too, is history, replaced by the neo-conservative release 3.0. Still stinging from his 2000 defeat, McCain in the intervening years reinvented himself again. Eager to please the GOP's hard right base that rejected him earlier, John McCain heading into the 2008 Republican primaries reversed course on the Bush tax cuts, called for overturning Roe v. Wade, backtracked on his own immigration reform proposal and sounded even more belligerent than the President on Iraq and Iran. As the Arizona Republic reported, that McCain was hardly a maverick, voting with his party when it mattered most since 1999. In 2007 alone, McCain voted with George W. Bush 95% of the time. By 2008, his record reached a perfect 100%. As for the "fully formed neoconservative McCain," Schecter says, "call him McCain 3.0."
Since Schecter's book was published, John McCain breezed through the GOP primaries to lock up the Republican presidential nomination. I asked Schecter if Americans were witnessing a McCain Version 4.0, a born-again moderate racing back to the center to distance himself from his debilitated Republican Party and its wildly unpopular president.
According to Schecter, I was giving John McCain way too much credit. With his stands on global warming, ANWR and offshore drilling, for example, changing "from one day to the next," Schecter said, "he's killing his campaign."
"McCain 4.0 doesn't know who the hell he is. He's running in all directions. He's combined all three McCains to try to thread the needle between a rock and a far-right place."
The schizophrenic McCain 4.0 of campaign '08 wasn't a pretty sight to behold. The man who in 2000 told George W. Bush, ""Don't give me that shit and take your hands off me" by March 2008 proclaimed, "I would be proud to have President Bush campaign with me and support me in any way that he feels is appropriate." During the GOP primaries, McCain ran an ad titled "True Conservative" which declared him a "foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution." But after winning the Republican nomination, McCain returned to his "Original Maverick" brand. Summing up McCain's return to the middle following his hard right turn, adviser Charlie Black deemed his man "slightly right-of-center."
Then came Sarah Palin and the politics of rage. Ever since, the Tea Party movement has been bee simply a continuation of the failed 2008 campaign by other means.
As he launched his first presidential run in 1999, John McCain declared of the Keating Five scandal which almost ended his career, "It was the wrong thing to do, and it will be on my tombstone and deservedly so." Now, McCain will need two more lines for his tombstone. "Sarah Palin" is surely one. The other, as the five versions of John McCain suggest, might be "Political Chameleon."