John McCain has had a hell of a last month.
On July 20, he announced he had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer. Eight days later, McCain cast the deciding vote to kill his party’s last-ditch attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
In the time since then, McCain has blasted President Trump’s rhetoric on North Korea (“The great leaders I’ve seen don’t threaten unless they’re ready to act, and I’m not sure President Trump is ready to act,”) and, on Thursday, he introduced his own plan on how the American military should proceed in Afghanistan.
“To my Democrat friends and some of my Republican friends, I am coming back,” McCain said with a laugh in a video message posted to his Facebook page on Wednesday. “Even those who want me to die don’t want me to die right away, and that’s good.”
McCain, it would seem, is back to being the McCain who rose to national prominence in the early 2000s (and stayed there) – a politician, yes, but one willing to stick it in the eye of his own side (and seemingly reveling in doing so). Someone with a dry sense of humor about himself and the entire political process. Someone not afraid to be WAY out on a limb (his call for a surge of troops in Iraq was deeply unpopular when he did it in the early 2000s) or loathed by a certain segment of his party or the other party.
The obvious explanation for McCain’s turn back toward his self-proclaimed “maverick” persona is that, faced with his own mortality, McCain has decided to go for broke – to let it all hang out and damn the political consequences.
But, Mark Salter, McCain’s co-author and longtime confidante, insisted that attributing McCain’s McCain-ing of late to his brain cancer diagnosis is overly facile.
“He’s taken issue with Trump statements and policies many times before his diagnosis and in language as colorful,” Salter said. “The health care vote was a big deal, but he had also called for regular order and letting committees see what they could do before his diagnosis, not just in his floor speech the week of the vote. I know work on an Afghanistan plan also proceeded [his] diagnosis.”
While it’s hard to imagine a brain cancer diagnosis – and it being the same cancer that befell McCain’s friend, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat – wouldn’t have some very real effect on your perspective and your approach to your job and your life, I agree with Salter that McCain’s turn to being the McCain of the early 2000s is about more than just the cancer diagnosis.
A close study of McCain’s career reveals that his maverick-ness has always waxed and waned. His 2000 presidential campaign was the height of it because that was what the political times called for. He was running against a figure of the entrenched establishment in George W. Bush. The only room for a candidate to get around – or even close to – Bush was to run as the outsider. So that’s what McCain did.
As the 2000s wore on, however, McCain became more of a mainstream figure. He abandoned his push for comprehensive immigration reform when it appeared as though it would sink what was supposed to be his front-running bid for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. He later returned to that push and helped a bipartisan bill get through the Senate, although it died in the House. In 2010, still stinging from his defeat at the hands of Barack Obama, McCain tacked right to handle the primary challenge from blowhard former Rep. J.D. Hayworth. In 2012, The New York Times wrote a piece about McCain’s evolution to a more mainstream politician; “Once a Rebel, McCain Now Walks the Party Line,” read the headline. To fend off another conservative primary challenge in 2016, McCain stayed largely silent on the topic of Donald Trump until he won the Senate primary – and almost immediately began to criticize the businessman-turned-politician.
In short: John McCain is a politician. Gasp! Like any politician who has held office for as long and successfully as he has, McCain has learned to adjust his emphasis and tone based on his political circumstances. This is what politicians do.
And so, having just been re-elected to a sixth term at the age of 80, McCain was always going to be more maverick-y in 2017 than he was in, say 2015 or 2016. The cancer diagnosis may have accelerated his willingness to be that maverick, but it was always coming.
None of that is to say McCain lacks a political core. He clearly cares deeply – and consistently – about foreign policy and national security. And, his natural state – from his life as a self-confessed young screwup at the Naval Academy until now – is as a boundary pusher and someone never terribly comfortable toeing the party line.
McCain always seems to return to that natural state eventually. And that’s where he finds himself now, at the twilight of a remarkable political career that has spanned four decades and an amazing life that has lasted twice that long.