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

McCain (R-Ariz.) derided the idea — pushed by some tea-party-affiliated members such as Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) — that raising the debt ceiling should be linked to adding a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, a proposal that McCain supports but most other senators do not.

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

Tea party members responded in kind. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) deadpanned that he would “rather be a hobbit than a troll,” while 2010 Senate candidate Sharron Angle of Nevada said that “it is the hobbits who are the heroes and save the land.”

The “McCain as maverick” meme was cemented as he emerged as one of the few Republicans to speak up in opposition to President George W. Bush and his own party. McCain’s most notable apostasy during that time was his successful push for changes to campaign finance law.

But by the time McCain had seized the 2008 Republican presidential nomination and the right to face off against 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.

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

“I never considered myself a maverick,” he said during that race.

McCain allies insist there is no difference between the McCain of 2010 and the man who took to the Senate floor on Wednesday.

“I don’t buy into ‘Where’s the old McCain?’/‘The old McCain is back’ stuff,” one supporter said. “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.

The less favorable view of McCain’s journey over the past 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.

Regardless of his motivations, McCain showed — once again — that he has a knack for being in the center of the action. And that means he will be worth watching as the debt-ceiling debate moves to the Senate.


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