In what has become an unlikely classic holiday movie, New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) foils the bad guys’ machinations. While scuttling their devious plans, the “Die Hard” protagonist describes himself as “just a fly in the ointment. … The monkey in the wrench. The pain in the a--.”
Lacking a fictional John McClane this Christmastime, America’s lonely eyes may turn to an equally smart-alecky ex-Navy fighter pilot named John McCain. Whether it’s standing up to the bad guys (Russia) or just generally serving as the “fly in the ointment,” Sen. McCain seems well-cast to play the role of maverick in the real-life drama playing out before our eyes.
This is a role he seems to relish. McCain has been dubbed a “maverick” for years; he attacked Christian conservative leaders as “agents of intolerance” during the 2000 Republican primaries, forced President George W. Bush to sign campaign finance reform, and broke ranks with the GOP on immigration and executive branch appointments under President Obama.
Now, having just won re-election after snubbing Donald Trump, he owes the president-elect nothing.
McCain’s motives are not to overturn (or question) the legitimacy of Trump’s election. And there is little reason to believe this is a personal vendetta. (Still, who could forget Trump’s comments about liking heroes who “weren’t captured?”)
The opening salvo in this struggle might play out over the nomination of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, the man expected to be named Trump’s secretary of State and a man with deep business ties to Russia.
“It’s a matter of concern to me that he has such a close personal relationship with Vladimir Putin,” McCain said. “And obviously, they’ve done enormous deals together and that would color his approach to Vladimir Putin and the Russian threat.”
News about Tillerson’s likely nomination broke on the heels of reports that Russia had intentionally interfered with our elections — reports that Trump’s team is still disputing.
“Vladimir Putin is a thug and a murderer and a killer and a KGB agent,” McCain continued on Sunday. “Let’s call Vladimir Putin for what he is. Does that mean you don’t deal with him or talk to him? Of course, you talk to him. But you do it the way that Ronald Reagan did, and that’s from a position of strength.”
There are signs that McCain is already working on getting the band back together.
From Russia with love
Regarding the fact that the Kremlin awarded Tillerson the Order of Friendship, Graham said, “If you received an award from the Kremlin, [an] Order of Friendship, then we’re gonna have some talkin’.”
“Being a ‘friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for from a secretary of State” Rubio tweeted.
Opposition to Tillerson might well include other Republicans in the upper chamber. For example, conservative Sen. Ben Sasse has been a vocal critic of Trump from Day One.
But what is the long game for McCain and this loyal opposition? This early opposition to Tillerson is really a surrogate battle in a much larger war. And I think this larger war is bifurcated. From a strategic standpoint, there are two things McCain and his team would be wise to establish right off the bat.
First, when it comes to Russia, McCain and Trump are clashing over differing world views.
As Peter Beinart observed in The Atlantic, “Before Trump, Republican leaders generally described the United States as fighting an ideological struggle against the enemies of freedom. Now, Trump and his advisers describe America as fighting a civilizational struggle against the enemies of the West. Seen through that very different lens, Muslims look more nefarious and Vladimir Putin looks more benign.”
The Russia question is finally coming to a head, but this has been brewing for some time now. The rise of Trumpism has confirmed that, as Bienart suggests, the paradigm has shifted in regard to how a lot of conservatives view the “Evil Empire.”
Ready for action
McCain, who fought a real surrogate war against the Soviet Union, is less naive about the “new” Russia. He will fight against this effort to redefine the paradigm.
McCain’s second goal likely has little to do with Putin. There is a sense that Trump has his own authoritarian tendencies and that he has — so far — encountered little resistance. One by one, Trump has rolled over obstacles and adversaries and institutions. And the fact that his political party controls everything means that the only pushback he will encounter is if some Republicans join with Democrats.
For those who worry about Trump’s ability to simply impose his agenda at will, seeing Congress tell him “no”— to serve their role as a check and balance — would be a welcome return to normalcy.
In what might be his final act (but who knows?), John McCain finds himself once again where the action is. He has served his country admirably, as a Navy pilot, as a heroic POW, and as the Republican standard-bearer. He has had a distinguished career.
Could it be that at 80, his greatest role is yet to come?
Matt K. Lewis is a senior contributor at the Daily Caller and author of the book “Too Dumb to Fail.” Follow him on Twitter @mattklewis.