Biography does not predict success in office. It never has. And yet we’re all drawn to it. We love personal stories of heroism, sacrifice, challenges overcome, outstanding virtue. That said, we should also recognize that a compelling back story may be necessary, but it is not a sufficient condition for political greatness. Which brings me to John McCain.
The rationale behind his political career was always his personal story: son and grandson of admirals, Annapolis, naval aviator and finally long-term prisoner of war. Military service, especially under the extreme duress of combat and imprisonment, is certainly noble. But surely we can agree that not everyone who has sacrificed for his (or her) country would make a great statesman. Aristotle describes the primary virtue needed for statesmen as prudence, what might be better described as practical wisdom. Yet prudence is a word that has rarely, if ever, been invoked in relation to Senator McCain. What we heard instead were terms like maverick, honorable, heroic — and it’s these charismatic qualities that afforded Mr. McCain a large degree of latitude when he chose to oppose his own party.
Throughout Mr. McCain’s long political career, he was the Republican most beloved by Democrats. The reason is simple: They often agreed, especially when it came to sticking a thumb in the eye of Republicans and undermining conservative priorities. His service to the country as an aviator and a prisoner of war deserves nothing but praise and commendation. Such devotion to the country cannot be emulated too often. But Mr. McCain’s political legacy is more complicated. When discussing it, we must not conflate his military service or even his personal sacrifice with political wisdom or effectiveness.
In fact, John McCain’s career is an example of the danger of electing — and re-electing — politicians based on their personal story rather than on demonstrated political accomplishments. Throughout his political life Senator McCain either misunderstood or disagreed with the principles that animate the party whose members he relied upon for electoral success. He ended up staying in office with votes from a coalition of Republicans afraid that abandoning him would mean electing a Democrat and Democrats who saw him as an ally. I speak as a lifetime Arizona Republican who has heard fellow conservatives justify voting for Mr. McCain in just such terms for decades. His 2016 re-election is a case in point. To win his narrowest victory, he patched together 53.7 percent of the vote (down from 58.7 percent in 2010) by winning 16 percent of Democrats and 50 percent of independents.
Arizona Republicans like me who were McCain supporters in the early 90s became more circumspect as it became clear that the rock-ribbed conservative candidate who toured the state searching for votes in 2010 by promising to “complete the dang fence” and repeal Obamacare was a different person from the senator who actively opposed President Trump’s border wall and cast the deciding vote against reforming Obamacare — despite also running campaign ads in 2016 claiming that “John McCain is leading the fight to stop Obamacare.”
What I found truly objectionable was that legitimate criticism of Mr. McCain’s politics and policies here in Arizona was countered by the reply that he was a war hero. While that should earn someone personal respect, even deference, it should not be used as a weapon to silence dissent.
During his long political career, Mr. McCain maintained a very high profile as one of the most quoted Republican senators and most sought-after television guests. Yet he left virtually no legislative mark. The one major piece of legislation which he underwrote was the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill that, in directing money away from political parties and into independent expenditure groups, had precisely the opposite effect from what was intended. Likewise, he was a relentless proponent of military spending, but there is no significant national security legislation that exists because of Mr. McCain. Yet his fingerprints are clear on some signal Republican failures. This was often characterized as “independence.”
Mr. McCain built a brand around being an un-Republican and the media lavished praise on him for that. He clearly relished the role of an outsider who would tell it like it is. But was that really who he was? Or was he just another senator with presidential aspirations and a flare for fraternal invective?
Of course, Mr. McCain was not the first or the last politician to use his military service as a prophylactic against criticism. But that’s dangerous. No politician should be beyond the reach of public criticism regardless of prior service to the country. The issues at stake are too important. What’s worse is that this sense of invulnerability encourages the self-regard to which many politicians are already prone.
Much responsibility lies with voters, who must not allow themselves to be hypnotized by a compelling biography. Mr. McCain was out of step with his Republican constituents on virtually every major issue of the past generation, including Obamacare, immigration and foreign policy, where Mr. McCain had long supported military intervention around the globe — a policy that has cost our nation dearly.
In the senate, Mr. McCain was the Democrats’ near-perfect instrument for hectoring Republicans. He relished his role as a gadfly, and Democrats were eager to encourage him because doing so made the Republican conference less united and less effective. Of course, the paeans to Mr. McCain ended briefly when he ran for president against Barack Obama.
Then, for a few key months in 2008, previously solicitous media outlets began running hostile stories about him. A common theme was Mr. McCain’s angry outbursts. Typical of the genre was a story at Alternet describing Mr. McCain as “someone who should never be near the red button” and another in The Washington Post, “McCain: A Question of Temperament.” The Post story was filled with quotes like this one from former Senator Bob Smith, a New Hampshire Republican: “His temper would place this country at risk in international affairs, and the world perhaps in danger. In my mind, it should disqualify him.” The Boston Globe brought out Senator Thad Cochran, who said that the thought of a McCain presidency, sent “a cold chill down my spine.”
The formula was simple: when he was a foil against Senate Republicans, he was a straight-talking American hero; when he was running for president against Mr. Obama, he was a dangerous madman. It didn’t help that his behavior in the 2008 election was quirky to the point of being erratic. Remember that at one point during the financial crisis he unilaterally suspended his campaign and flew back to Washington, and then began campaigning again a few days later having done nothing noteworthy. It demonstrated for the nation the sort of impulsiveness Arizonans had grown used to. It was supposed to be a grand gesture that demonstrated that he was above politics and therefore more worthy of the presidency than his opponent. It actually demonstrated self-indulgence and a lack of political maturity. As a result, when he faced Mr. Obama and his substantial political talents, he lost the Electoral College by 2 to 1.
In some sense, McCain’s biography — and the overheated rhetoric it encouraged in discussions of his political persona — deprived him of agency. He often seemed to be playing a role created for him by others. Even his work on campaign finance reform with Russ Feingold seemed to lack a guiding principle. It was more a form of penance for his implication in the pay-to-play Keating Five scandal. He became a symbol when what Arizona needed was a legislator.
Part of Mr. McCain’s legacy, which is yet to be fully understood, should serve as a warning to us. We can honor John McCain the man while having reservations about his political career. Among the things for which he will be remembered are his service to the country in the United States Navy, his advocacy for a strong military, his opposition to torture, the Keating Five scandal, two unsuccessful presidential runs, his yearslong feud with conservatives in his own party and the vote that killed Obamacare reform. It’s a mixed bag. So let’s honor the good and noble in Mr. McCain’s life while not being afraid to be point out — and even carry on — legitimate political disagreements.
Christopher Buskirk is editor and publisher of the journal American Greatness, a co-author of American Greatness: How Conservatism, Inc. Missed the 2016 Election and What the D.C. Establishment Needs to Learn, and a contributing opinion writer.