By MAUREEN DOWD
Published: December 22, 2009
The Maverick’s buck stops here.
John McCain is no longer the media’s delight and his party’s burr, bucking convention with infectious relish.
The man used to be such a constructive independent that some of his Republican Senate colleagues called him a traitor. Now he’s such a predictable obstructionist that he’s in the just-say-no vanguard with the same conservatives who used to despise him.
On Tuesday afternoon on the floor, Senator Mitch McConnell, who contemptuously fought McCain’s campaign finance reform bill all the way to the Supreme Court, oozed admiration toward his Arizona colleague, as McCain did yet another grandstanding fandango on the health care bill.
Watching him, one can only wonder: Is McCain betraying his best self? Who is the real McCain?
Even some of McCain’s former aides are disturbed by the 73-year-old’s hostile, vindictive, sarcastic persona — a far cry from The Honorable Man portrait so lovingly pumped up in books by his former aide and co-writer Mark Salter.
After he lost to W. in a nasty primary battle in 2000, McCain delighted in poking at the new Republican president. But he was a trenchant critic of W.’s budget-busting tax cuts and other policies because his objections were consistent and honestly felt. (Or so we thought.)
Now he delights in attacking another man he ran against and lost to: a new Democratic president who had once hoped, based on McCain’s past positions, that his former Republican rival might be of help in such areas as the economy, national security, immigration and climate change.
With President Obama, McCain’s objections seem motivated more by vendetta than principle.
He angrily turned on his former base, the news media, during his campaign when his lame performance on the economy and his irresponsible choice of Sarah Palin got panned.
In 2000, McCain would devilishly point out Tom Brokaw or a Times journalist to town hall audiences as “one of the last Trotskyites, left-wing, Communist, pinkos of the American media.”
In 2008, he snarled to political aides about journalists whom he had once admired, like Brokaw and Charlie Gibson, and he cut off The Times completely. He talks about the media betrayal with the same outsize scorn that he once reserved for his Viet Cong captors.
The famous twinkle is gone, replaced by an infamous bitterness.
After his 2008 race against Obama — a campaign that too often took the low road in toadying to the right and painting Obama as a socialist and terrorist fellow-traveler — the capital eagerly waited to see which McCain would return to the Capitol.
Would McCain be the new lion of the Senate, putting “Country First” for a historic final chapter to his long career? Or would he morph into the sort of knee-jerk Congressional partisan he had once loathed?
Sadly, despite the scary trellis of problems America faces, the unorthodox, brave and cheeky McCain failed to show up.
Part of his sharp turn to the right may be motivated by his primary challenge for a fifth term from J.D. Hayworth, a conservative, anti-immigration talk-show host and former Republican House member (who has also been anti-Times at times).
But he has said himself that it’s more about philosophical differences with President Obama.
Unlike his pal Lindsey Graham, who voted to confirm Sonia Sotomayor, McCain seemed motivated by revenge when he voted against Obama’s first Supreme Court nominee.
“An excellent résumé and an inspiring life story are not enough to qualify one for a lifetime of service on the Supreme Court,” McCain sniffed.
McCain, who once led the fight in the Senate with his pal Joe Lieberman on enacting a global warming bill, shocked many when he flipped on the issue, attacking climate legislation supported by Lieberman, Graham and John Kerry.
McCain has also descended into demagoguery on Medicare. Although he has been in favor of Medicare reductions to cut the deficit over years, he’s now adopted a rigid hands-off Medicare stance.
He rejected the idea of being a point man on immigration in the Senate, apparently preferring to stew.
A couple of times, during floor speeches on health care this month, the Arizona senator noted “that a fight not joined is a fight not enjoyed.”
It seemed to be an inadvertent recognition that he was fighting for the sake of it, not to help the country get past some of the hideous problems left by the man McCain failed to stop in 2000.
Maybe an excellent résumé and an inspiring life story are not enough to qualify one as a real statesman.