Sen. John McCain doesn’t like being called a “maverick.”
The term, once the trademark modifier for the 76-year-old Republican from Arizona, has largely been collecting dust in the bin of political clichés since 2008, when McCain lost the presidential election to Barack Obama. But on Tuesday, “maverick” was being tossed around again, because McCain has suddenly re-emerged as the guy Democrats can talk to, occasionally at the expense of irritating his own Republican colleagues. And while it’s unclear how long this will last — or if it even will have an effect on the party — for now, it’s a streak.
Over the weekend, McCain helped broker an agreement with Democrats to move forward on a handful of executive nominees to prevent, at least temporarily, a move from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to change the filibuster rules of the Senate via the "nuclear option." In recent months, McCain spearheaded the Senate’s effort to pass a bipartisan immigration bill. And last week, he introduced with a bipartisan group a revamped Glass-Steagall Act to impose stricter rules on the nation’s largest banks.
"I've never liked that moniker because when I called for [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld's resignation and I disagreed with [George W.] Bush and I voted against the tax cuts, then I was the maverick, and then ... after I lost to Obama, I was the angry, bitter old man,” McCain said Tuesday. ”You know, it's interesting how all of a sudden John McCain's personality changed so much.
"I'm a guy that I think has developed some relationships, and I'm trying to get things done for the good of the country,” McCain continued. “I don't mean to replace any of our leadership or usurp it in any way, but there are ways that I can help, and I try to."
Maybe he didn’t mean to, but McCain certainly stepped on a few toes to push a deal through.
Republicans, especially in these past few Congresses, have been adept at holding the line to extract what they want from Democrats, especially on budget talks and when the White House gets involved. And the Senate GOP was bracing to hold the line on the nominations issue.
Senators such as Rob Portman of Ohio had been in their own negotiations with the administration to get changes to agencies they didn’t like — the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, in Portman’s case — and McCain’s agreement with Democrats largely nullified that effort.
Though no senator approached for this story would say so publicly, there certainly was frustration with McCain’s freelancing, according to multiple GOP sources, and many senators were caught off guard that a deal they did not understand was being struck.
He’s also repeatedly called conservative members of his conference, who carry serious weight with the Republican pundit class, “whacko birds."
And he seemed to be muscling in on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's territory. The Kentucky Republican, in previous Senate “brinks,” has been the politician to work out deals with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. or other administration officials.
But over the weekend, it was McCain who was on the other line of the ubiquitous cellphone of Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., the Arizona Republican’s partner on the immigration rewrite. Schumer said he was bicycling through Martha’s Vineyard to raise money for Senate Democrats while also working McCain on the phone to find a way forward on the nominations issue.
“Sen. McCain and I must have talked 30 times this weekend!” the New York Democrat offered to a large group of reporters, with characteristic exuberance.
Reid offered rare and high praise on the Senate floor for McCain earlier in the day. “I’m going to tell one person and no one else how much I appreciate their advocacy, their persuasiveness, persistence, and I’m trying to think of a word that really describes this man, it’s hard to find. ... John McCain is the reason we’re at the point we are,” Reid said. “No one was able to break through but for him, and he does it at his own peril.”
McCain credited a lunch in late March organized by Reid to commemorate the 40th anniversary of McCain’s release as a prisoner of war after his plane was shot down in Vietnam as one of the breakthrough moments for him, in terms of wanting to get back to the table with Democrats on major initiatives.
“I was very touched by that. And it’s not true,” McCain said of Reid’s floor speech.
The question some Republican sources asked Tuesday, however, spoke directly to Reid’s “peril” point: What does McCain have to gain by being the guy Democratic leaders turn to and heap praise on, especially as other brinks are on the horizon (the debt ceiling, funding the government, an immigration bill conference report if the House can pass a bill)?
At the height of McCain’s national political prominence in 2008, Reid said, “I can’t stand John McCain.” And right after the presidential cycle, McCain had to worry about a primary challenge from his right in 2010. Certainly that could have colored his attitudes then and explained a bit about what might seem like a turn now.
“I understand the realities of primaries in both parties and they are sobering and frightening, or they can be. We've seen good members lose over primary fights. ... It does bring people to earth,” said Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill. “But I think there's also this feeling that at some point in your life and your career, you have to really focus more on the legacy you're going to leave than the next election.
“John has really become an important force in the Senate. He's become a real bridge between the two caucuses. You often wonder, when these people return from a presidential run, whether it's John McCain or John Kerry, whether they can ever adjust again to the simple life of a senator,” Durbin said. “And I think it took [McCain's] re-election in the state and a reflection on his role to really find his place and hit his stride.”
Longtime friend and ally Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said that McCain “seems to be enjoying himself” and is “full of energy." And perhaps in words that Democrats would love but would rub his younger, more conservative colleagues the wrong way, McCain himself summed up what he felt his role in the rules change talks meant.
“It’s a good example,” he said, “because that’s what we come here for.”