McCain the maverick (again)

Arizona Sen. John McCain’s floor speech on Wednesday denouncing the negotiating tactics of some tea party-aligned members of Congress raises the question as to whether the famed maverick is back to his old tricks.

McCain derided the idea — pushed by some tea party-affiliated members like Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah)— that raising the debt ceiling should be tied to adding a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, a proposal that lacks majority support in the Senate. (McCain supports the idea.)

He called such an argument “foolish” and bizarro”, adding that to portray the balanced budget amendment as a possibility amounted to “deceiving many of our constituents.” He also quoted extensively from a Wall Street Journal op-ed that compared tea partiers to “hobbits”.

The tea party responded in kind; Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul deadpanned that he’d “rather be a hobbit than a troll” while 2010 Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle said that “it is the hobbits who are the heroes and save the land.” Um, ok.

McCain’s comments (and the controversy they caused ) raise an intriguing question: Has McCain the straight-talking maverick been reborn?

McCain rose to national prominence in 1999 and early 2000 with a free-wheeling presidential campaign built around the idea that the Arizona Republican always told it straight — party orthodoxy (or political correctness) be damned.

Voters responded in a major way as McCain stunned heavy favorite George W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary and very nearly toppled the then Texas governor in the fight for the nomination.

The “McCain as maverick” meme was cemented as he emerged as one of the few Republicans during the first part of the last decade to speak up in opposition to Bush and his own party in Washington. McCain’s most notable apostasy during that time was his successful push for campaign finance reform.

As the decade wore on, however, many independents and even some Democrats who had become enchanted with McCain soured significantly on him as he tacked toward the ideological right in expectation of a 2008 bid.

By the time McCain had seized the 2008 presidential nomination and the right to face off against then Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, he had largely shed the maverick image — a necessity given his courtship of the donors and activists closely affiliated with the party establishment.

But it was McCain himself who killed the McCain as maverick image during his 2010 primary fight against former congressman and tea party favorite J.D. Hayworth.

“I never considered myself a maverick,” he said during that race. “I consider myself a person who serves the people of Arizona to the best of his abilities.”

During that primary, McCain touted his support from tea party groups in the state and brought former Alaska governor Sarah Palin — a tea party hero — into the state to campaign with him. “Everybody here today supporting John McCain, we’re all part of that tea party movement,” Palin said at the time.

McCain allies insist that there is no difference between the McCain of 2010 and the man who took to the Senate floor on Wednesday to deride some within the tea party movement.

“I don’t buy into ‘where’s the old McCain/the old McCain is back stuff,’” said one supporter. “He’s always who he is.”

The source added that McCain wasn’t going after the tea party in the speech but rather the political process more broadly — including President Obama and Democrats. “He’d do it were he up [for re-election] this cycle,” said the source. (You can read the entirety of McCain’s remarks here.)

. The less favorable view of McCain’s journey over the last decade is that he has bent to the political winds — embracing the maverick mantle when it served his purposes and walking away from it when it didn’t.

“He knows how to maximize political opportunities,” said one former McCain backer.

Regardless of his motivations, McCain showed — once again — he has a knack for making news. And that means he will be worth keeping an eye on as the debt ceiling debate moves to the Senate over the next few days.

More on PostPolitics

New tea party star born of debt debate, Joe Walsh

Harry Reid: Senate will defeat Boehner plan

Boehner puts the squeeze on House GOPers

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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