If you were told in the summer of 2008 that, in two years time, Republican Presidential nominee John McCain would utter the words, “I never considered myself a maverick,” would you have believed it?
The maverick image was one that Senator McCain had cultivated for years. He spent most of his professional career striving to be bipartisan. He ran in 2008 as the candidate most likely to work with Democrats. He believed, perhaps rightly, that the public wanted someone that could bestride the middle of the nation’s political spectrum. But just two years later, that motivation toward moderation is gone. With those words, bipartisanship’s most visible symbol announced the belated demise of the moderate center.
The ability to work with the opposition to create broad and compromising legislative initiatives had been something of a litmus test for the better part of a generation. Perhaps the single most validating factor for a candidate in electoral politics, since 1994 or earlier, was the need to be seen as a moderate, blessed with the strength of character to abandon party and principle in favor of the greater good. There are a plethora of examples of politicians touting their moderate, bipartisan credibility on the campaign trail. As late as 2008, even “red state” stronghold Idaho hosted a race for the House where both candidate’s battled to get the support of as many members of the opposite party to endorse them as they could. Even President-elect Obama declared in October of 2009 that his new cabinet would be bipartisan. That phenomenon is no more.
Sen. McCain has a long history of working with Democrats to create compromise legislation. The candidate McCain ran on his record of bipartisanship and often decried the “constant partisan rancor” that was his perception of Senate procedure. McCain was the sponsor of cap-and-trade legislation in 2003 and 2005, the sponsor of campaign finance reform legislation which bore his name and has been and the author, along with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, of a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2007. All that changed after 2008.
McCain was quickly confronted with a challenge from the right, in his home state of Arizona led by radio host and former Congressman J.D. Hayworth. As Hayworth gained momentum and a November 20, 2009 poll showed him in a statistical tie with McCain, the previously outside possibility that the Senator’s long tenure in the Republican Party would end in disgrace became a terrifyingly likelihood.
Thus, the perpetual fighter John McCain geared up for another election. He soured on immigration reform and became a proponent of boarder guard reinforcement and the construction of the boarder fence. He stopped working with Congressional Democrats on energy reform and cap-and-trade legislation. He became the face of opposition to health care reform in the Senate, even sparing uncomfortably with President Obama at his nationally televised Healthcare summit. “We’re not campaigning anymore,” President Obama sharply reminded Sen. McCain. “The election is over.” “I’m reminded of that every day,” was McCain’s quiet and reflective response. He may not have been thinking of 2008.
McCain deftly remade himself in the image of the Conservative that he had been years before and Arizona’s Republicans responded positively. That November ’09 deficit became the 29 point advantage that he now enjoys in the RCP polling average. McCain will probably coast to victory on Tuesday, but it was not long ago that outcome was in doubt.
What does this say about the political instinct to be seen as a moderate, perfectly at home on either side of the aisle working toward the public good? John McCain’s story is certainly anecdotal, but so is Congressional Democrats’ 2009-2010 health care reform push, conceived behind closed doors, and passed without a single Republican vote. So are the Senate Majority’s efforts to achieve consensus on climate change legislation among major energy providers without the inclusion of Republican members. So are the, now stalled, efforts to reform Senate filibuster rules to pass unpopular legislation without the check provided by the minority – a position on which the results of the November elections will almost certainly force a recalibration. If Republican members of Congress have abandoned efforts at bridge building, Congressional Democrats have burned the bridge behind them.
So is crossing the aisle dead? Perhaps today, but like many things in American public life, it is a temporary condition. Eventually, the pendulum will swing back and the public will demand that their representatives revive cordiality and adopt postures that facilitate consensus between the two parties. For now, however, the battle lines are drawn and the dramatic personality change in the maverick senator from Arizona is the model. It may be a popular one next year.
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org