The original maverick
Posted on July 18, 2017
Also published in The Hill.
Before there was Donald Trump, there was John McCain.
If you think Trump is secretly hated by the vaunted Republican establishment, you should have been in a GOP leadership meeting when it was revealed that McCain was going to destroy George W. Bush in New Hampshire in the 2000 GOP primary.
The panic was palpable.
McCain made it a special mission to infuriate the political establishment by pushing for increased taxes on tobacco, by pushing for campaign finance reform, by arguing for higher taxes on the rich.McCain spoke truth to power. He was the one who invented the Straight Talk Express. He wasn’t much of a fundraiser because corporate America didn’t particularly love his populist and anti-corporate rhetoric.
But he understood the vulnerabilities in the Bush armor. He was the underdog who was unusually candid for a presidential candidate. He was unscripted. He was authentic.
Voters, especially moderate voters, liked the maverick image and the Arizona senator did much better than anybody could have anticipated.
McCain ended up losing to W. in South Carolina after Bush allies insinuated that the senator’s adopted daughter was not who he said she was. It was an ugly campaign that revealed the worst of the GOP establishment.
McCain lost that primary race and would spend eight years licking his wounds and plotting a strategy for a political comeback. He would eventually get the GOP nomination in 2008, but by the end of the second Bush term, the Republican brand was so toxic, there wasn’t much that the Senator could do to change the momentum.
And yet, he still ran a decent campaign and made a race of it, even briefly leading the polls for a few moments before the bottom fell out of the economy and the steam ran out of the Straight Talk Express.
Two election cycles later, Donald Trump entered the political world.
Like McCain, he was a maverick, disliked and distrusted by the political establishment. Like McCain, he ran a bare-bones campaign. Like McCain, he developed a killer earned media strategy, dominating the news cycle and eschewing poll-tested talking points.
Trump aimed to be a different kind of politician and a different kind of Republican. His appeal is not to the prototypical country club Republican. He is an unpredictable nationalist who masters in brand management and understands marketplace segmentation. He knows how to play to his base.
McCain made a reputation for telling the Republican base exactly what it didn’t want to hear. Trump has a habit of telling the base exactly what it does want to hear.
There are other fundamental differences, of course. McCain is a war hero. Trump? Not so much. McCain is an IRI-loving internationalist who is neoconservatism’s favorite senator. While Trump has far-flung business operations all over the world and is not the international Neanderthal that some in the media would assume, his political bread is buttered on the twin pillars of immigration restrictionism and trade protectionism.
McCain and Trump have a complicated relationship to say the least. The senator had to carefully pick his spots in his reelection campaign, making certain not to anger Trump supporters so much that they wouldn’t vote for him in the primary or the general election.
And in a tight Senate, where every vote counts, the president needs the senator to help him pass his ambitious legislative agenda.
In 2010, McCain won his primary by promising, in a television commercial, to “complete the dang fence.” One man’s fence is another man’s wall.
While the wall (or fence) remains an issue to be resolved by this Congress, it is not the issue that is currently top of mind.
Today, as the senator recovers from surgery to remove a blood clot in his brain, the Senate is forced to wait with him to decide whether to pass a controversial healthcare bill. In years past, comity would have allowed McCain to pair his yes vote with a Democratic no vote, and the upper chamber could have moved the ObamaCare replacement bill and then moved on to the rest of the agenda.
But that kind of comity doesn’t exist in politics anymore.
In the meantime, we wait. Let’s hope Sen. McCain recovers quickly.