The Maverick That Never Was

After burning through all but 2 million of 22 million dollars raised and the culmination of a failed campaign with the public guillotining of the longtime senior campaign managers and fifty staffers, the political obituary has been written for the once-heralded media darling. In the past week, the media has attempted to retrace the dance steps it took in 2000 with the upstart Senator branded as the brazenly honest maverick. From Salon to the Washington Post, the question posed is what caused the derailment of the famed Straight Talk Express and the once certain McCain presidential bid?

McCain entered the 2000 Republican nomination process as a fresh face championing a noteworthy cause, but quickly became fodder for the Bush election team. Cornered in South Carolina, McCain quickly flip-flopped on the Confederate Flag issue while Bush’s force made dubious push polls asking primary voters if they would still support McCain if he had an illegitimate black child (his family adopted a daughter from Bangladesh). He got caught putting lip stick on the pig as media driven arguments with Falwell and Robinson escalated and as Bush openly questioned McCain’s service to his country. The latter was the most anathema of tactics considering McCain’s stay at the Hanoi Hilton while Bush went AWOL after learning to fly antiquated planes. McCain, hobbled by a ruthless Bush campaign speared by Rove, saw the nomination elude him to the Bush’s tactic of appealing to the Republican base.

mccain hugs bushThus began the predicament with the myth of McCain as he began to serve out 8 years of Congressional purgatory, desperately retooling himself into his own image of a Republican that could be certified by the Right. The separation between McCain’s maneuvering and the media-induced perception of his views as populist and flying in the face of conventional Beltway inertia became evident. It is here that the essential question should be asked: Was McCain a veritable political maverick or was his highly regarded political independence a victim of his failed 2000 bid?

The legend was largely built on his repeated attempts to curb lobbyist influence with his cosponsorship of the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Bill. Not only impassable in Congress, the bill would have met a judicial doom in the pre-Roberts Supreme Court (and a more certain doom in the current court). Simply stated, cash would have been regarded by the court as freedom of speech, neutering the majority of the bills provisions. Regardless of this reality, McCain’s background in the subject is a suspicious one, considering his run in with corruption that led him to be rebuked by the Ethics Committee for his role in the Keating Five.

Yet the past eight years have otherwise been an effort in self-reform towards towing the party line. Apart from opposing the Marriage Constitutional Amendment (largely due to the personal influence of a gay staffer), McCain enjoys an 82 percent rating from the American Conservative Union, a 100 percent rating from the CATO Institute, and the third most conservative voting record in the 109th Congress. He has been the second most public bull behind the President on Iraq and immigration reform, a choice of death with the wider electorate for the former position and a certain lynching from the Right for the latter. On the Bush tax breaks, McCain initially opposed the 11 year, $350 billion dollar cuts, only to capitulate to the Bush fold in exchange for an all too public embrace. The maverick image is and always has been a hollow one — the Straight Talk Express seemed like a simple one-issue ploy while McCain harvested politics on the far right. As the cracks in the image were reported, McCain turned into a cantankerous geriatric, perpetually angry at the same media establishment that launched him in 2000.

For many, the past eight years have been a disheartening display of McCain’s willingness to sacrifice his credentials in order to please the Republican elite. The edge that McCain once brought – a willingness to take on corporate corruption, lobbyist influence, and the charlatans of the Evangelical movement — has been dulled by a complacency in being a Bush sycophant, willing to suck down the fumes from a disastrous war, an exceedingly unpopular immigration policy, and economically hobbling tax cuts while Bush speeds away from Pennsylvania Avenue. In essence, the media darling turned into another Bush crony, willing to stoop to new and unnecessary lows in a vain attempt to jockey to be the next Commander in Chief. The McCain implosion is one of his own doing, the consequence of doing business in Washington and misreading the Bush orthodoxy as the key to the White House.

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