Commentary Magazine


The Tragedy of John McCain

John McCain won his Senate primary race by a huge margin — almost 2 to 1. That makes his flip-flop on immigration — from comprehensive immigration supporter and the voice of restraint to faux exclusionist — all the more tragic. He really didn’t need to throw away the mantle of reformer and maverick. He really didn’t need to further alienate himself from staunch conservatives while shredding his credibility with liberal allies.

In a blistering piece in the Daily Beast, Tunku Varadarajan accuses McCain of becoming an “an insecure, reactive, poll-watching hack who focus-groups his way to reelection.” He digs up an unnamed colleague to announce: “What you need to know is that he really does believe in duty, honor, country … and he is an American hero. But he thinks that is all there is. He has no deep interest or principle on any other subject. Every other issue has become personal with him, viewed through politics or pique. He is a patriot for whom most other issues are simply situational, which is why he can change so easily on them.” Strong stuff, indeed.

It certainly reveals McCain’s poor personal relationships in the Senate, although it goes too far. McCain has in fact been a rather stalwart conservative on social issues, spending, and judicial appointments, in addition to his invaluable leadership on national security issues. He has been an articulate opponent of ObamaCare. There is no more devoted friend of Israel in the U.S. Senate or champion of religious and political dissidents around the world.

But McCain’s reputation for prickliness and his lack of an overarching conservative philosophy — how does climate-control legislation mesh with his calls for fiscal prudence? — are evident. And by abandoning his former immigration stance (complete with a foray into and then a hasty retreat from the idea that we should fiddle with the 14th Amendment), he reinforced the perception that while he employs moralistic language and delights in chiding his own party, his core convictions are few and really not all that “core.”

Varadarajan opines that McCain should have hung it up after losing to Obama, but the senator has instead become embittered, a quintessential sore loser. On that score, Varadarajan is misguided. McCain has and will remain an important figure in the U.S. Senate on national security matters at a critical time. He has not exhibited personal animosity toward Obama but rather given voice to the very concerns that have motivated conservatives and independents to take to the streets in protest.

However, being a “maverick” for the sake of simply being a gadfly and an annoyance to his own party is no virtue. And joining the anti-immigration herd, which he had eloquently slammed, is shameful. Certainly it’s not the embodiment of honor.