McCain keeps us guessing

Aaron Guerrero Contributor
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In a lengthy, but well worth reading, July piece in New York magazine on John McCain’s current political predicament, one Republican strategist who has worked with the senator in the past had this to say about his former client:

“He’s angry at Obama, at former staff, at his family life, his fellow Americans. He’s angry.”

The piece further noted how the GOP’s 2008 standard-bearer, faced with a combative primary from his ideological right, did not want to “go out like Barry Goldwater,” his predecessor who narrowly won his final re-election bid to the Senate.

But following last Tuesday’s primary victory, perhaps McCain can finally shelve the anger and regret lingering from his unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign. And judging by his margin of victory, no one is likely to mistake his political sunset in Arizona with that of Barry Goldwater’s. In a national environment that has been less than hospitable to incumbents and establishment figures, McCain’s 24-point trouncing of Hayworth is a notable feat.

McCain managed to defeat his primary opponent, talk radio host and former congressman J.D. Hayworth, by portraying himself as a bona fide conservative and his opponent as a corruptible “huckster” and extremist. McCain flooded radio and television airwaves, unloading a $20-million campaign war chest to dispose of Hayworth and preserve a Senate career that has endured for over two decades.

From the early stages of the primary, McCain’s political instincts were clairvoyant. He never underestimated the seriousness of a challenge from his right-flank, despite some political prognosticators believing the four-term incumbent’s heavy-handed tactics against Hayworth were rooted more in paranoia than in necessity.

Still, McCain left little to chance, never allowing Hayworth to capitalize on the Tea Party fervor that has swept through Republican primaries this year, catapulting insurgent conservative candidates to victories over longtime members of Congress.

McCain’s most visible transformation came on immigration. Long known for his moderate tendencies on the issue, McCain ran tacky but effective ads that highlighted his conversion from being a disciple of the comprehensive solution school of thought to an all-out border hawk. He endorsed Arizona’s controversial immigration law and condemned the Obama administration’s insufficient efforts to secure the border.

McCain’s primary victory came at a tremendous financial cost and at an even greater political cost—by tacking to the right on immigration and other issues, McCain tarnished his image as someone willing to buck Republican orthodoxy.

Since the conclusion of the presidential campaign, McCain has faced charges that he ignored his better angels and instead became beholden to feelings of resentment and envy. The press, once enamored by his elder statesman conduct and bipartisan itch, has questioned him for joining Senate Republicans in a parade of legislative obstruction rather than returning to his role as a moderate consensus-builder who is willing to incur the wrath of conservative colleagues and talk radio for the sake of reaching a compromise.

And even in victory, McCain has been unable to escape his critics. Some have argued that his political gymnastics during the primary campaign resembled that of a “hack,” while others have proclaimed that his rightward tack on immigration cost him a meaningful seat at the table next time the issue comes before Congress.

Whispers have already begun to circulate that even if the Republicans take over one or both chambers of Congress in November, McCain will no longer be the go-to senator for Democrats aiming to strike a deal with Republicans on controversial legislation.

Arizona’s senior senator is a virtual lock to win re-election in conservative Arizona. Polls show him with a healthy lead over his Democratic opponent, former Tuscon City Councilman Rodney Glassman. And all roads lead to McCain making the inevitable general election shift towards the center.

Though McCain is much closer to the end than to the beginning of his political career, like a veteran actor past his prime, he still has the opportunity to pull off an impressive final act. For McCain, such an act would consist of reclaiming the mantle of maverick.

Come January, Democrats will have either greatly diminished majorities or be facing minority status in one or both chambers of Congress. With issues like taxes, immigration, and the deficit destined to arise, Obama and congressional Democrats are going to need an ally on the other side to help strike deals on key pieces of legislation.

Enter McCain, who by next year may want to exchange his obstinate disposition for a newfound willingness to work with Obama White House.

Whether or not he will revert back to his old maverick ways remains a mystery, but don’t count out the notion just yet.

Aaron Guerrero is a 2009 UC Davis graduate, who majored in political science and minored in history. He formerly interned for Rep. Dan Lungren and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and is a freelance writer.