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. Running for president in 2008 was as bad for McCain as running in 2000 was good for him. Playing the rebel against the Republican establishment made him young again. Running as his party’s standard-bearer turned him into a grumpy old man.
To some extent, this is a matter of physical decline. With his war wounds and cancer surgeries, McCain is an old 73. The larger factor may be the reactivation of McCain’s powerful sense of dishonor. Bear with me, because what follows is surmise based on long observation rather than hard evidence. But McCain looks to me like someone who bears an unacknowledged weight. If I had to guess, I’d say the weight was his shame over his poorly executed presidential campaign and his awful choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate.
In the past, McCain has dealt with fractures to his sense of honor in extraordinary ways. When he succumbed to Vietnamese torture and signed a “confession,” as a POW, he attempted suicide. “I felt it blemished my record permanently, and even today I find it hard to suppress feelings of remorse,” he wrote in his first book. Years after the Keating Five scandal, McCain wrote that the episode “still provokes a vague but real feeling that I had lost something very important, something that was sacrificed in the pursuit of gratifying ambitions.” If, as I suspect, McCain relives his 2008 experience as a shame on the scale of these events, he can’t simply apologize again. Acknowledging his mistake in picking Palin—someone he knows to have been utterly unready to become the leader of the free world—would be politically suicidal.
So instead of grappling with his damaged honor the way he has in the past—by examining his soul and apologizing—McCain has retreated into a kind of political second childhood. When he started out in politics, it was as an extremely conventional Sun Belt Republican. It took the Keating scandal to get him to question the campaign-finance system and turn him into an independent spirit. Since losing in 2008, he has reverted to his earlier incarnation.
Toadying to the right wing of his party has left McCain angry and frustrated, and is—to his old admirers—deeply disappointing. But as disappointed as some of us may be with the new John McCain, I expect he is even more disappointed with himself.
Jacob Weisberg is chairman of the Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy and In an Uncertain World: Tough Choices from Wall Street to Washington.