Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) voted yesterday to proceed to debate on an unknown Republican health care bill (or bills) written in unprecedented partisan fashion outside of the normal legislative process. Then he stood in the well of the Senate and decried partisanship and legislative hijinks. Many political journalists applauded his words and scoffed at liberals who pointed out the inconsistency with his actions, even generating convoluted, nonsensical explanations that he was setting himself up to oppose the eventual bill. Hours later, McCain proved the liberals right by supporting a proxy vote for a partisan bill written outside of the legislative process that had not been fully reviewed by the Congressional Budget Office.
It’s not a coincidence that political reporters missed the story on McCain in their rush to canonize him. They’ve been wrong about him for decades.
Political journalists love to tell the legend of John McCain, the noble, straight-talking maverick who says what he means and means what he says. The reality is much less interesting: McCain is a standard-issue Republican senator with few legislative accomplishments but an immense talent for press relations.
McCain won the affection of the press in the simplest way possible -- he worked them. Beginning in the late 1990s, as he and his ghostwriter Mark Salter were reinventing him and positioning him for his first presidential run, McCain gave reporters access, treated them alternatively to respect and jocular insults, and provided a steady stream of good quotes. The deployment of the Straight Talk Express, the presidential campaign bus McCain used to charm and disarm reporters on long trips through the countryside, was a brilliant maneuver. And it worked. “The press loves McCain,” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews said in 2006. “We’re his base.”
McCain talks a good game to reporters, at times providing them with juicy quotes criticizing his party’s excesses. But his voting record in recent years is basically in line with that of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT). No one calls Hatch a maverick. On the rare major legislative issues in which he has defied his party -- the Bush tax cuts, campaign finance reform, and comprehensive immigration reform -- McCain has repudiated or abandoned his attempts to break with the party as they came under increasing fire from the right.
The “maverick” reputation largely unraveled among the press late in the 2008 presidential campaign, helped along by his nakedly cynical decision to pick the woefully unqualified Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. But old habits die hard, and for years we have seen declarations from political journalists and commentators that Maverick McCain is “back.”
The label even survived McCain’s decision to endorse Donald Trump (a man he fairly clearly did not trust with nuclear weapons), a clear admission that, to the extent McCain ever represented a different kind of Republican, he lost and was willing to bow to those that won. After McCain offered criticism of the president in the early days of his administration, reporters again rushed to praise his willingness to stand up for his beliefs, ignoring that he had voted for almost every member of the president’s cabinet.
Yesterday’s paean to the “need for bipartisanship” and a demand to return to “the old way of legislating in the Senate” immediately following a vote in favor of partisan legislation crafted in secret should have exposed McCain to his friends in the press. Instead, as FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver noted, there was a divide between “less traditional reporters” who pointed out McCain’s inconsistency and television and newspaper reporters who warmly received his remarks.
Here, for example, are the opening paragraphs of a CNN.com news article by White House reporter Stephen Collison: “In a Washington moment for the ages, Sen. John McCain claimed the role of an aging lion to try to save the Senate, composing a moving political aria for the chamber and the country that he loves. With a deep-red scar etched from his eyebrow to his temple, the legacy of brain surgery less than two weeks ago, McCain beseeched his colleagues to forsake political tribalism and restore the chamber to a spirit of compromise that had helped forge national greatness.”
Some in the press, noting McCain had said in his speech that he “will not vote for the bill as it is today,” created convoluted explanations for how McCain was “laying the groundwork to vote no” on a final bill. This made little sense at the time -- McCain doesn’t need to lay “groundwork”; if he has a problem with how the bill was put together he could have opposed it and forced the return to regular order he championed. And in any case, McCain effectively voted for “the bill as it is today” later that night, proving his media backers wrong in embarrassing fashion.
Maybe McCain will find a way to vote “no” on one of the health care bills that will apparently come before the Senate, while voting “yes” on other versions of the legislation. If that happens, his “base” in the media will surely grab ahold of that vote with both hands and declare the senator and themselves vindicated, regardless of how little sense that makes. But expecting McCain to be the deciding vote preventing Republican health care legislation would be foolhardy. He’s a run-of-the-mill Republican senator who can be counted on to fall in line. Indeed, he almost always has.