McCain's Burden

Article excerpt

Byline: Jacob Weisberg

He bears the shame of picking Sarah Palin.

I've stopped reading news about John McCain for the same reason I tune out the daily updates on Afghanistan and the BP oil spill: it's too damned depressing. Well into the 2008 primary season, McCain showed glimmers of his old gutsy, independent spirit. Since losing to Barack Obama, however, he's turned into the kind of party hack he once lived to mess with.

In the past few months, McCain has flipped his position on dropping the military's antigay "don't ask, don't tell" policy, soft-pedaled his support for climate-change legislation, and dropped his support for humane immigration reform. Last week he came out against Elena Kagan's Supreme Court nomination on the lamest of grounds and defended Arizona's ugly anti-immigrant law against challenge by the Justice Department.

It's hard to believe that this is the same guy who a decade ago was denouncing Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as "agents of intolerance," who reduced Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to a sputtering rage with his efforts to ban soft money, who opposed George W. Bush's tax cuts, and who stood up to Dick Cheney on torture. When McCain told NEWSWEEK earlier this year that he has never considered himself a "maverick," it sounded like another confession under duress, with the Tea Party standing in for the Viet Cong.

This is the conventional interpretation of McCain's collapse: that he has had to fall into line because of the primary challenge he faces in Arizona. Lindsey Graham--who has gone from McCain understudy to McCain replacement in the role of "sane Senate Republican not from Maine"--said this straight up in a recent interview with the journalist Robert Draper: "John's got a primary. He's got to focus on getting reelected." The Republican running against McCain, J. D. Hayworth, a former congressman and popular talk-radio host, has pressed hard on the hot button of immigration.

By Graham's logic, McCain will begin edging back to the center once he secures his party's nomination in late August; then he will throw off his chains and do his maverick dance once more. I doubt this will happen, however, because a politician can shift on his axis only so many times and still be taken seriously, and because McCain's personality seems to have changed in a more fundamental way. …