The original GOP maverick ran to the right in his 2008 presidential bid. So why is he suddenly so vulnerable to a conservative challenger that he needs Sarah Palin to help save him?
As Arizona Senator John McCain runs for his fifth term, he should be untouchable. Instead, he's facing a primary challenge from J.D. Hayworth, a former Republican congressman who lost his deep-red seat in the Phoenix suburbs in the Democratic tidal wave of 2006. All recent polls show McCain beating J.D. Hayworth—a man the Arizona Republic memorably accused of "bombastic rhetoric and obnoxious behavior"—by a wide margin, from 59 percent to 30 percent in a poll sponsored by McCain to 49 percent to 33 percent in a poll sponsored by Hayworth. And Hayworth's close ties to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff should make him easy prey.
Conservative populism was Sarah Palin's native language, but it never sounded quite right coming out of McCain's mouth.
But if we've learned anything in the Tea Party era, it is that big leads can evaporate quickly when an establishment campaign is caught snoozing. McCain has scrambled to crush the insurgency, raising money and rallying the troops with a robocall from newly minted Republican folk hero Scott Brown. He's even scheduled campaign appearances in March with his former running mate Sarah Palin, the woman some believe made his slim chance at winning the White House even slimmer. Hayworth's flacks are crying foul, telling anyone who'll listen that McCain is being too tough on a man who until recently made his living as a minor-league radio shock jock. Polls aside, it's very clear that McCain is taking Hayworth's candidacy seriously.
After all the headaches Palin caused him, it must be galling for McCain to rely on her for his political survival. The entire conservative revolt is based on the premise that McCain, who sees himself as a man of honor above all else, is a shifty chameleon who can't be trusted to keep his word. What better way to bring out his infamous fiery temper?
McCain's fundamental problem is that he's getting squeezed from the right and the left. "What the hell happened to John McCain?" was the constant refrain from McCain's erstwhile lefty admirers when he ran a spirited and often angry campaign against Barack Obama. The wisecracking maverick won over the Daily Show nation as a thorn in the side of George W. Bush, a man he once compared to Darth Vader. Lest we forget, McCain served as an unofficial leader of the opposition during the early Bush years, when pusillanimous Democrats looked to him as a straight-talking centrist savior. Back then, he made the most compelling case against the Bush tax cuts and for sweeping campaign-finance regulations. Though he championed the invasion of Iraq, he excoriated Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush himself for their catastrophic mishandling of the occupation. Many seriously believed that McCain might serve alongside his fellow Vietnam veteran John Kerry in 2004. But then McCain, for reasons that only he'll ever know, switched gears. He embraced President Bush in 2004 and never let go, becoming a stalwart defender of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This long and awkward rapprochement with the right culminated in his 2008 presidential campaign, when every liberal's favorite Republican ran as the candidate of Joe the Plumber, a tax-cutting, earmark-exposing, terrorist-stomping reborn Reaganite. Every time McCain played the role of old-school culture warrior, he seemed to do it through gritted teeth. Conservative populism was Sarah Palin's native language, but it never sounded quite right coming out of McCain's mouth.
After the election, many expected McCain to go back to being his old squishy self, cutting deals with Democrats and aiding President Obama at every turn. And on some issues, like the deployment of additional troops to Afghanistan, McCain has been supportive of the White House. On the other hand, he's been running red-hot radio ads that say, "President Obama is leading an extreme, left-wing crusade to bankrupt America." He then pledges to "stand in his way every day," which sounds more like Jim DeMint than Jon Stewart. Having built up considerable credibility as a Republican critic of President Bush, his denunciations of the Obama administration carry more weight than those of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans who find it harder to get on Meet the Press.
And while many critics on the right and left see McCain's tougher tone as a reflection of political realities, one could just as easily argue that the man is meeting his moment. Throughout the campaign, McCain sought to energize the voting public on the central importance of curbing runaway spending. At the time, it made McCain sound clueless to middle-of-the-road voters who were more worried about an economy in free-fall than they were about pork. Now, however, as deficits reach eye-popping extremes, the right is emphasizing spending over the culture war issues that always left McCain cold.
Though Hayworth is claiming the mantle of the Tea Party right, there is a real sense in which McCain's mad-as-hell war on wasteful spending better reflects the Tea Party gestalt. The trouble is that McCain's past flirtation with cap-and-trade and campaign-finance regulation mark him as "one of them" rather than "one of us." As the liberal journalist Mark Schmitt has argued, McCain's bipartisanship was less the mark of a maverick than the mark of a maneuverer, a man who amassed power and influence through his willingness to cut deals that could lead to actual legislation. And as much as the Tea Partiers hate spending, they hate backroom deals even more. It's too early to say that John McCain will go the way of Charlie Crist. But this is definitely a race to watch.
Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.