Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University, editor of “The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment” and co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Last week, an extremely important figure in American political history, Arizona Sen. John McCain, passed away at 81. He left behind a robust and impressive career in public service. Following his tour of duty in Vietnam and his long captivity as a POW, McCain devoted his life to one institution – Congress.
McCain worked as a representative of his state at a time when many people of his stature chose to make money in the private sector. And, since the days of President Ronald Reagan, he was a loyal soldier to the conservative movement.
At the same time, there were moments when he acted as a genuine maverick on several high profile issues, including his championing of campaign finance reform in the early 2000s and his recent vote against the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. McCain also served as part of the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Eight,” that sought a compromise on immigration reform during President George W. Bush’s administration.
But, like many leaders with lengthy political careers, his legacy is complicated.
While he will be remembered as one of the few Republicans who was vocal in his opposition to President Donald Trump and his gruff style of politics, McCain also played a critical role in opening the door to the transformation that has remade the Republican Party and allowed for the rise of Trump. As the Republican nominee in the presidential election of 2008, McCain helped to cement the marriage between the voters who would soon be called Tea Party Republicans and the GOP Party leadership.
After winning the nomination, McCain made a bold choice in an effort to energize his campaign, selecting the relatively unknown Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. Although for a brief spell the McCain-Palin ticket generated the excitement that McCain hoped for, the campaign quickly disintegrated.
As the nation faced a massive economic meltdown, Palin proved to be a lightweight. She couldn’t handle basic policy questions from the news media. Just as important, the crowds at their rallies turned ugly. It was clear to McCain that Palin was attracting parts of the Republican coalition who had not been as prominent in presidential politics before. They were nastier in their attacks against Democrats, and they were willing to go to places that the party’s mainstream considered to be off limits. When McCain mentioned Barack Obama in his campaign speeches in October 2008, some in the crowd would shout out “treason” and “terrorist.” At one rally in Florida, the crowd hurled insults at the “liberal media” with one man telling an African-American journalist to “Sit down, boy.” At a few McCain-Palin events, supporters even screamed out, “off with his head.”
McCain did not like what he was seeing. A climactic moment in the campaign occurred during one town hall meeting, when he passed the microphone to a supporter who said, ” … I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him and he’s not, he’s not … he’s an Arab. He’s not … ” McCain took the microphone back from her and said “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign’s all about.”
But each time that he tried to “cool the crowd,” Jonathan Martin and Amie Parnes reported in Politico, “he was rewarded with a round of boos.”
To his credit, McCain did take a stand at that town hall, and he would later make tough statements about Tea Party Republicans on Capitol Hill, calling them “Tea Party Hobbits” when they moved to shut down the government over a spending dispute in 2011.
And McCain has not been shy about what he thinks of our current President. “To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century,” McCain warned, “to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of Earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems, is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.”
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Nonetheless, his selection of Palin in 2008 was consequential to his party. When historians look back at how he impacted politics, the positive contributions that he made to Washington and to his party will be balanced by the forces he helped open the doors to at the highest levels of power. Not surprisingly, McCain, who was never someone interested in nostalgia, struggled with his decision for the rest of his career. Just this year, he admitted that he regretted ignoring his gut, which wanted to pick Joseph Lieberman, a former Democrat turned Independent, instead.
Sometimes, the mistakes of a politician are as important as his accomplishments. At a moment when the Republican Party is struggling to understand what it has become, McCain’s complex career offers an opportunity for some important soul-searching.