Through the years, the thing we admired most about John McCain was his steadfast, granite-like adherence to the principle of standing by his principles. And now, our principled guy is turning out to be a just another run-of-the-mill politician who will do anything to save his aging political skin.
We may not have agreed with him about everything or on every position he took over the years, but from his time as a prisoner-of-war in North Vietnam, you had to admire his courage, tenacity and forthrightness. And for his reputation as a fighter, by being the guy you called on to watch your back and to even the odds in a good bar fight.
Okay, every politician has dark corners and secrets, but McCain had earned a solid reputation (and his moniker as the leading senate, ahem, maverick) as a defender of the military and the men and women in uniform, as a leading proponent of campaign finance reform in partnership with Democratic senator Russ Feingold, and in the patently unfair way his personal life was traduced by Bush campaign operatives in 2000. For example, during South Carolina GOP primaries, he was maligned as the secret father of a child born out of wedlock. And just to make the things spicier for the still very confederate state, the child was rumoured to be black. The real truth was that he and his wife had quietly, without fanfare, adopted an orphan from Sri Lanka.
Even if one thought his campaign against Barack Obama was malformed, ill-conceived or poorly carried out, it was not a mean-spirited one, and he didn’t stoop to the kinds of personal invective that lurked in the darker corners of the online universe and among some Republican Party supporters. [Which, of course, could be debated, having in mind that the bulk of vicious attacking on Obama was left to Sarah “The Pitbull with Lipstick” Palin. – Ed.]
But, “O tempora, o mores,” how things have changed since 2008. The next Arizona senatorial elections are in November and John McCain is now in a political fight for his life against a right-wing former congressman-turned-radio-talk-show-host, J D Hayworth. And so, one can watch with growing sadness as John McCain pulverises his entire political legacy to hold on to his senate seat for six more years.
Perhaps the first intimations of McCain’s Faustian bargain to yield principle for position came with his agreement to embrace then-Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate in the 2008 presidential campaign. Palin was an odd choice – unless you read it as a game-changing nod to the deeply conservative Republican base led by ideologues like talk-show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. After all, in 2008 McCain could never have made a plausible claim to aim for independents and the middle of the political spectrum in the face of Obama’s “change you can believe in” and “yes, we can” onslaught. Now, however, in J D Hayworth, McCain faces a challenger from the right, at the state level, in a state that is usually about as Republican as a caucus of the Republican national committee.
Hayworth, after being defeated in his final congressional race several years ago, was an Arizona radio talk-show host, denouncing illegal immigrants, anything connected to Barack Obama, anyone he deemed insufficiently patriotic, the rest of the usual litany of the right-wing – and pretty much anything associated with John McCain. Hayworth is now ready to announce his formal primary challenge against John McCain in the Republican primary that comes up some six months from now.
And at 51, Hayworth’s a whole generation younger than McCain, and trying to cement together a coalition of the angry from among Arizona’s Tea Party supporters, the traditional conservative Republican activists who were uneasy with McCain as a presidential candidate, plus the more conservative of Arizona’s independent voters (the state’s primaries are open, so any registered voter can vote in either the Republican or the Democratic primary selection).
Despite McCain’s current movement rightward, dyed-in-the-wool conservatives have always had a certain suspicion of him and his flirtations with such dangerous leftist notions as campaign reform. Or as Hayworth says, “The political winds of change are here. The conservatives are highly motivated, and there is an intensity level among conservatives to take part in this primary. The atmospherics will help us.”
Analysts also say McCain is increasingly jammed up on the right by Hayworth who, by virtue of his history as a consistent right wing voice, may just be able to peel off enough voters on the right to gain the nomination in the primary.
As a result, McCain is morphing into a denier of just about everything he ever believed in and voted for. He is now a critic of the bank bailout bill he actually voted for, and he no longer supports closing the Guantánamo Bay detention facility he urged be closed many times before. Perhaps most surprisingly, he has offered only a muted response to the Supreme Court’s decision that gutted the campaign finance laws he himself sponsored and gave his name. He has also dialled way back from earlier stances that gays in the military are okay with him – if the military supports it. [Well, the military did support it, but McCain suddenly forgot to defer to the generals. – Ed.] His past support for immigration policy overhaul, campaign finance restrictions, opposition to the then-Bush administration tax cuts and the Federal Marriage Amendment (a proposed constitutional amendment against gay marriage) have all contributed to potential weakness as a candidate this year.
Meanwhile, Hayworth’s emotion-on-his-sleeve radio-personality can generate major eye rolls, but this seems more an effort to position himself right in the middle of the new populist narrative that threatens more centrist Republicans. To head this off, in addition to a big shift in positions by McCain, the old warrior is doing as many town hall meetings and related events as he can squeeze into his schedule. Moreover, McCain’s campaign filed a complaint with the federal elections commission that Hayworth’s use of his radio programme constituted campaign advertising – pushing Hayworth to resign from his radio programme.
The 2008 presidential campaign showed McCain’s possible weakness when he received under half of the votes in the Arizona GOP primary – a victory but hardly a walk in the park for the local guy, even as there were more than two candidates still in the race for the nomination when the primary was held.
Still, this time around, McCain has his pluses – he has strong support among more centrist Republicans, as well as with independents and Democrats, his fundraising ability (he holds about $5 million in the bank for this race already) and some deep institutional support statewide are important too. McCain has even been endorsed by Sarah Palin and the newly elected Massachusetts senator Scott Brown. Former congressman Dick Armey, a key figure in the Tea Party movement, is supporting him as well. Key Republicans say they are less than keen to splinter their party and then hand the seat to a revitalised Democratic Party candidate in November.
Of course, Hayworth’s record is far from unblemished, with connections to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, among other things. Nevertheless, this race figures to be one of the highest-profile Republican races in the nation as the country heads into the primary season and then the mid-term House and Senate races in November and it may be a key bellwether of the strength of the new breed of populism. Hayworth himself offers the challenge: “We all admire and respect John for his service, but he’s been there too long, and it’s time to welcome him back home.”
Over to you, John, hope you check the price of staying first.
By J. Brooks Spector
PS: Readers have noted that McCain’s senate reputation was not always a sterling one. True. Over twenty years earlier, when McCain was a junior senator, he was a near-casualty of the late 1980s Keating savings and loan scandal. He was publicly named by the Senate Ethics Committee as having exercised “poor judgment” in receiving major political contributions from the owner of the Lincoln Savings and Loan Society, the savings and loan that was about to implode from corrupt practices (A savings and loan is the American equivalent of a building society). This political near-death experience seems to have jump-started McCain’s effort to build a senatorial reputation for probity and principle in the years that followed – at least up to his current period of growing political expedience or desperation.
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