Paging the real John McCain
I did not begrudge him the $20 million he spent to win Tuesday’s primary, or whatever amount it was. Nor was I bothered by the doctrinal compromises the senator made in order to convince Arizona voters that he was, in fact, a conservative. McCain has always been a realist, doing what is necessary to survive a North Vietnamese prison camp or a tough political trap. His 2000 embrace of George W. Bush—a man he had every reason to dislike—showed his practicality, and it made possible his own presidential nomination in 2008.
It was easy to root for McCain to turn back the challenge from former Rep. J.D. Hayworth and put himself in a position to win his fifth term in November. The last thing the Senate needs is a loudmouth ex-radio talk show host like Hayworth.
What it does need badly is adult leadership, and it’s now incumbent on McCain to demonstrate that he is prepared to fulfill this role for both his party and his country.
After his defeat by Barack Obama, a man about whom he harbors many private reservations, McCain was entitled to step back and catch his breath rather than plunging into renewed political battle. When Hayworth popped up in Arizona, ambitious for the Senate seat, McCain was wise to take the threat seriously and respond forcefully.
But now, as the 73-year-old senator prepares for what may well be his final term in a congressional career that began in 1982, the time has come for McCain to look to his legacy—and conditions are right.
In a Congress where Democrats have pitiful approval ratings and Republicans even worse, McCain is one of the few names that does not draw instant contempt from voters. The reputation he established for independence—for being his own man, no matter what the pressures—has survived the vagaries of an exceptionally long career.
That reputation is his ticket to influence and a precious gift he can bestow on others, Republican or Democrat, who are willing to join him as a dysfunctional Senate prepares to struggle with a challenging agenda both domestic and foreign.
McCain need not muscle anyone out of the way to play the role for which he is uniquely fitted. He simply needs to set his own course and form his own ad hoc alliances, as he has always done, with a Tom Coburn on the right or a Russ Feingold on the left.
One of the conspicuous failings in the last few years has been the absence of a second party making principled decisions on when to support and when to oppose the president. McCain has the best opportunity—and the best credentials—to restore this.
He has almost complete political freedom—a constituency that plainly will not punish him for following his own conscience. There is enough mutual respect between him and the president that McCain’s support will be welcomed by the White House and his opposition understood.
It is up to McCain to choose when and how to exert the influence he commands, not just as a senior senator but as a man that millions were prepared to support as chief executive in two campaigns.
One obvious area where he will be needed is his favorite field of national security. Iraq, where he was prescient and persistent, still poses challenges, and Afghanistan, where Obama badly needs a Republican partner, is likely to be in crisis before it can be called a success. Behind them looms Iran, which could be this nation’s next big test.
Hardly less important is the role McCain can play within his own party. In Arizona, he successfully steered the GOP away from an experiment in extremism. He needs to do this nationally as well, including a potentially influential role in shaping the choice of the next nominee.
A load of work—but John McCain has never shirked.
David Broder is a columnist for The Washington Post. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.