The McCain Mutiny

By Margolick, David | Newsweek, April 12, 2010 | Go to article overview

The McCain Mutiny


Margolick, David, Newsweek


Byline: David Margolick

A maverick fights for his political life--and his soul.

Late last month, at a dusty fairground outside Tucson, John McCain stood behind the person who is, at least for the next few years, surely his most important legacy to American politics. And speaking to the adoring mob, Sarah Palin stood behind John McCain, repaying his inestimable gift to her in the most compelling possible fashion: by helping him to survive.

Facing an impertinent challenge for his Senate seat in the Republican primary this summer, McCain listened to the former Alaska governor heap praise on him. Throughout, he fidgeted with a couple of pieces of paper, sneaking peeks at them every few seconds, and wore a slightly nervous smile, as if not knowing quite what might come out of Palin next. Periodically he applauded, clapping with the bum right hand whose fingers, courtesy of the North Vietnamese, still don't quite come together.

Many, many years ago she'd competed in a beauty pageant, Palin declared, as women howled (and a few men growled) approvingly. McCain would surely win the talent and debate portions of any such contest, she went on, but no way would the Washington elite and "pundints" and "lame-stream media" ever crown him "Miss Congeniality"! "He's never been a company man, he's never been one to just 'go with the flow,'?" she crowed. For there was at least one thing she'd learned in her years of commercial fishing in Alaska: only dead fish do that.

Much as the crowd ate up her every word, Palin had apparently missed the real message this electoral season in Arizona: for his three decades in Congress, McCain hadn't gone with the flow enough, at least not enough to satisfy many Arizona Republicans. Why else would his rival, former congressman J.D. Hayworth, be billing himself as "the consistent conservative"? Many of the GOP's most faithful, the kind who vote in primaries despite 115-degree heat, tired long ago of McCain the Maverick, the man who had crossed the aisle to work with Democrats on issues like immigration reform, global warming, and restricting campaign contributions. "Maverick" is a mantle McCain no longer claims; in fact, he now denies he ever was one. "I never considered myself a maverick," he told me. "I consider myself a person who serves the people of Arizona to the best of his abilities." Yet here was Palin, urging her fans four times in 15 minutes to send McCain the Maverick back to Washington.

In contrast to Palin's chirpiness, McCain's subsequent remarks sounded ragged--he got the date of the fall election wrong, for starters--and belligerent, far less pleasing to the crowd, some of whom began drifting off. (Anyone watching via computer could see the size of the online audience dwindle the longer McCain spoke.) But the old warrior, who has not faced a proper homegrown challenge since 1982, had snapped back into fighting form. Even a man who can't applaud quite properly can still form a fist. The unlikely spectacle of a party's most recent standard-bearer--and, despite Palin's popularity among the tea-party types, still its titular leader--facing such a challenge is yet another sign of the polarized state of American politics and the narrowing bandwidth of its parties, one that McCain acceded to, and then intensified, by picking Palin. "The extremes tend to punish any deviation from party orthodoxy," said Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, who blamed such rigidity in part for his own decision to retire.

With mainstream politicians paying an ever-greater price for their moderation--witness the Republican gubernatorial primary in Texas and upcoming senatorial primaries in Florida and Utah--mavericks like McCain are becoming an endangered species. That is, if McCain the Maverick is not already extinct. After retreating on a number of issues--gays in the military, climate change, the creation of a national-debt commission--the erstwhile iconoclast has morphed into what the Senate minority leader, Mitch Mc-Connell, calls "a fabulous team player. …

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