“Make up your mind, listen to your conscience, use your experience and never pander.” –– Former Congressman Joe Schwarz, 2006
John McCain is on the verge of losing the U.S. Senate seat he’s had custody over for three decades.
If the former Republican presidential nominee is defeated, it will ironically be after he’s sold out the last shred of his maverick brand by embracing Donald Trump.
McCain ran an outsider Republican presidential campaign in 2000, scoring a surprise win in Michigan, thanks to his friend and fellow Vietnam veteran Joe Schwarz. After his defeat, the senator solidified his reputation for heterodoxy by pushing campaign finance reform and opposing President George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the rich.
One of the dirty little secrets of political reporting is that journalists, myself included, love maverick politicians who flirt with bipartisanship. It’s not your imagination. We give them disproportionate coverage.
Why? It’s boring covering legislators who always rattle off caucus-approved talking points and vote the party line. Mavericks talk off the cuff and sometimes vote their own conscience (OK, sometimes, they’re just settling personal scores). But their prickliness itself is entertaining.
And these pols hearken back to a time when speeches could change votes, deals could be cut and people would reach across the aisle. Sure, the past always seems more idealized than it was. But jaundiced reporters will tell you politics was definitely more fun to cover before the days of ideological purity tests and term limits (at the state level).
On top of his bluntness, McCain also is a bona fide war hero. The man survived torture at the Hanoi Hilton for five long years. Naturally, reporters, myself included, like talking to him.
So it was disheartening to see him jettison so much of what made him great during his 2008 presidential campaign. In Michigan, he shunted Schwarz aside for Republican rabble-rouser (and sometimes political consultant) John Yob, who helped McCain lose by a jaw-dropping 16 points.
McCain started lashing out at the media and keeping them at arm’s length. And then he picked the queen of the Know Nothings, Sarah Palin, as his running mate. At least he had the decency to defend his opponent, Barack Obama, against attacks that he was a secret Muslim (even while Palin was fanning the racist flames).
Now it’s 2016 and McCain is fighting for his political life. He’s been mercilessly scorned by Trump as a “dummy,” and even had his war record spat upon. “I like people who weren’t captured,” Trump shrugged.
Pundits were convinced that draft-dodging Trump would be finished after taking on McCain, but they were wrong. The GOP base ate it up. And after Trump survived that flap while smugly refusing to apologize, it helped insulate him from future controversies, like retweeting neo-Nazis and calling for a ban on Muslims.
To add insult to injury, Palin endorsed Trump early on. She’d probably be judging pigs at the Alaska State Fair today if McCain hasn’t plucked her out of obscurity, but loyalty is for suckers. Not even Fox News wanted to keep a has-been like Palin on air (especially with so many nubile twentysomething talking heads out there), so joining Team Trump at least helps keep her money train going.
Meanwhile, McCain is trying to stave off a tough GOP primary challenge from Tea Partier Kelli Ward, a physician and former state senator.
He faced a similar situation in 2010 from U.S. Rep. J.D. Hayworth (D-Ariz.). McCain veered right on immigration to win, leaving behind a famous TV ad in which he bellowed, “Complete that danged fence!”
This year, McCain has made the calculation that endorsing Trump is the way to keep his job.
“You have to listen to people that have chosen the nominee of our Republican Party,” he explained lamely. “I think it would be foolish to ignore them.”
McCain may well survive the primary, thanks to three other candidates in the field. But he’s facing his toughest general election matchup ever from U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.), who’s looking to exploit McCain’s rightward turn in a browning state where Trump isn’t a lock.
McCain has made the choice that he wants to stay in office at any cost. We’ll see if it works.
But if you’d like to see the counterpoint, you have to go back a decade to when his compatriot Joe Schwarz was trying to hang onto his congressional seat. The $3 million GOP primary was a harbinger for the Tea Party and eventually Trump.
Tim Walberg, a slick preacher (who actually compared himself to Elmer Gantry), ran hard to Schwarz’s right on abortion, guns and immigration. He found some powerful benefactors in Minutemen leaders and the anti-tax group Club for Growth.
Schwarz’s impressive legislative record was lampooned as “embarrassingly liberal” in a series of TV ads. The congressman could have taken easy votes against gay marriage and embryonic stem cell research. That may have been enough to save his bacon.
That’s not who Joe Schwarz is, though. This is a man who volunteered as a medical student to serve in Vietnam –– and later traversed Southeast Asia as a spy for the CIA (delivering a baby or two in the jungle along the way). This is a man who taught Indonesian leader Suharto how to speak English. This is a man who trained at Harvard but decided to set up his medical practice in his sleepy hometown of Battle Creek.
So, no, he wasn’t going to take votes he didn’t believe in –– even if the price was the seat in Congress he’d waited decades to win.
Joe Schwarz did, indeed, lose. But his integrity remained intact. Instead of being hailed as a statesman, however, he’s considered a cautionary tale for ambitious Republicans. Most politicians can’t bear the thought of relinquishing power –– even if it means they’ll never accomplish what they set out to do.
That’s the straightjacket John McCain finds himself in today. I wish he’d give Schwarz a call, but he’s made his choice. And we all have to live with it.
Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.