McCain Sees Very Good and Very Bad Choices in GOP Field

Senator John McCain speaks with a reporter after the weekly Republican caucus luncheon at the Capitol on September 29. During a December 2 breakfast with reporters, McCain was critical of fellow Republican Senator Ted Cruz. Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS

John McCain was in a reflective, wisecracking mood Wednesday morning in Washington, but even in his most upbeat moments, he couldn't find much kind to say about Senate colleague Ted Cruz.

The GOP's 2008 presidential nominee told reporters at a press breakfast that he wanted to "accentuate the positive" in the 2016 race. He tiptoed around real estate tycoon Donald Trump's steely grip on the Republican presidential primary. When asked about the possibility of Trump becoming the party's nominee, he emphasized that he's a loyal Republican.

McCain did point out that he had disagreements with Trump. But then, unbidden, he added, "I have disagreements with Senator Cruz. I don't believe we should shut down the government."

Later on, the Arizona senator was asked which Republican candidates for president he thought were strongest on national security and which were the weakest. He said he preferred to focus on those he favored.

"Obviously, I have the greatest respect and affection for [South Carolina Senator] Lindsey Graham. He's like a brother to me," McCain began. "I do admire [New Jersey Governor] Christie's gumption. I do admire [former Florida Governor] Jeb Bush's proposals. I think [Ohio Governor] John Kasich, who I came to the House with me back in '82, has been a very successful governor in a swing state. [Florida Senator] Marco Rubio I clearly view as the next generation of leaders in the Republican Party, particularly on national security issues. I'm sure I've left a couple people out. There's a lot of very good candidates."

McCain didn't stop there, however. While he said he respected everyone in the field for running, he highlighted his strong disagreements with Cruz, whom, he said, was "the only Republican to vote against the defense authorization bill."

"I thought that was wrong because I believe our first obligation is to defend our country," McCain told a packed room of journalists, a sign of the continued sway the 79-year-old lawmaker holds as a spokesman for a party searching for its identity.

In singling out the Texas freshman senator publicly not once but twice, McCain reinforced the twofold challenge Cruz's presidential campaign faces, even as he surges in the polls. One, Republicans in Washington loathe him. And two, his decidedly anti-establishment views on foreign policy are out of step with a party that seems to be returning to its neoconservative roots in the wake of last month's attacks in Paris.

McCain once called Cruz and fellow Republican candidate Rand Paul "wacko birds," so his enmity against the former is not surprising. But even among those Republicans linked to the Tea Party movement, the ones who worked with Cruz to shut down the government, he enjoys little support. In a telling moment earlier this fall, a panel of House Freedom Caucus members (the ultraconservative insurgents that forced out Speaker John Boehner) were asked whom they supported in their party's primary. Almost all said Paul, the Kentucky senator. Rubio has also picked up a handful of endorsements from those members.

Cruz lags virtually all the professional politicians in terms of congressional support. Most of the backing he's received comes from his home state of Texas, though he's also won the endorsements of veteran firebrands like Steve King of Iowa, a vocal anti-immigration advocate, and Dana Rohrabacher of California.

The GOP primary electorate takes a pretty dim view of Washington, so Cruz's lack of support there might not be a huge problem. But his stances on foreign policy and security will continue to dog him as long as the party remains so focused on fighting terrorism and projecting strength. His rivals are certainly betting on that.

Rubio, a fellow Senate freshman, has been hitting Cruz almost daily for his votes to bar the National Security Agency's bulk collection of phone records as part of an intelligence reform law approved earlier this year. Cruz has swung back by pointing out that Rubio supported military strikes in Libya back in 2011, a move that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also advocated. The problem for Cruz is that the rest of the GOP's hawks were on board with military action in Libya too. Voting against the defense authorization bill, which McCain highlighted, is another strike against him there.

McCain's critique of Trump was much more oblique. Asked how, given his emphasis on national security, he could support Trump over Clinton in a hypothetical general election matchup, McCain equivocated. "I think Trump or any person who we nominate obviously wants to get a majority vote and that means appealing to the center," he began, before pointing out that there is still a "long way to go" in the race. "We'll have to see what happens, but I will support the nominee of the Republican Party," McCain said finally.

He also acknowledged concern within his party that Trump could drag down the whole GOP ticket (including him, as he's up for re-election in 2016), but he never singled out the front-runner by name. "I hate to refer to Barry Goldwater, who I loved and admired, but the fact is, when Barry Goldwater lost, we lost big time."

When it comes to 2016, McCain said his biggest worry is that "you cannot alienate the Hispanic voter and expect to win a general election. I mean, do the math. I worry a lot about that aspect of this campaign."

Asked about the bigoted remarks coming from audiences at some campaign events, McCain alluded to Trump's response. "In my view, if you allow those kind of things to be said, or done—in the case of beating up a protester—and go unresponded to, then you are complicit," he said reprovingly. On the 2008 campaign trail, McCain famously corrected a woman who suggested to him that Barack Obama is a Muslim.

"No matter what, you have to do what's right or you will lose in the long run. Even if you win, you lose," he said at the press breakfast.