John McCain’s Policy Temper Tantrums

Could the famously hot-tempered senator be guided by something other than ideology?

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An operating theory of John McCain went like this: His veer to the right in recent years was all about the politics of necessity. He needed to demonstrate his conservative bona fides to the GOP base first to overcome Mitt Romney et al in the 2008 primaries. Then more recently he had to keep burnishing his right wing credentials so that in a year when Bob Bennett and others were found to be insufficiently conservative McCain would be able to repel J.D. Hayworth’s siege from the right.

This theory of McCain seems to have crashed to oblivion during the lame duck session of Congress.

Joe Klein enunciated this theory of McCain over the weekend in his blog. He noted that McCain had voted against the DREAM Act despite being an original cosponsor. “One wonders why, especially in McCain's case, given the fact that he recently won reelection and doesn't have to pretend to be a troglodyte anymore.”

Ah, “pretend.” There’s the rub. It assumes that McCain’s positions on things are driven by principle or core ideology: things like comprehensive immigration reform, wherein he votes against a bill he once sponsored; like “don’t ask, don’t tell,” where McCain used to say that he would support repeal once the military brass did--but changed his mind with venom when the brass actually did support it; and things like cap-and-trade, which he was for before he was against it.

[See a round-up of editorial cartoons about "don't ask, don't tell."]

Maybe not? As Politico notes, “Some in the Senate wondered if the newly emboldened Republican would return to his old, deal-cutting ways, bucking his party on measures like campaign finance reform. But McCain may be more comfortable as an Obama antagonist--even though he says he’ll work with the president when they have common ground.”

Could the famously hot-tempered senator from Arizona be guided by something other a keen philosophical compass? Dana Milbank had this in Sunday’s Washington Post:

McCainologists in the Capitol speculate that on this and other issues he's driven less by policy consideration than by personal animosity. A decade ago, his antipathy toward President George W. Bush led him to seek common cause with Democrats to thwart a Republican president. Now his antipathy toward President Obama has made him a leading Republican hardliner.

As a unified theory of McCain it has the ring of truth.

As for the old theory, this is the sound of its crashing down, from Klein:

I used to know a different John McCain, the guy who proposed comprehensive immigration reform with Ted Kennedy, the guy--a conservative, to be sure, but an honorable one--who refused to indulge in the hateful strictures of his party's extremists. His public fall has been spectacular, a consequence of politics--he "needed" to be reelected--and personal pique. He's a bitter man now, who can barely tolerate the fact that he lost to Barack Obama. But he lost for an obvious reason: his campaign proved him to be puerile and feckless, a politician who panicked when the heat was on during the financial collapse, a trigger-happy gambler who chose an incompetent for his vice president. He has made quite a show ever since of demonstrating his petulance and lack of grace.


  • See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
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  • See editorial cartoons on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"