Ballot Box

Does the GOP Establishment Really Hate McCain?

One thing everybody seems to know about John McCain is that the Republican Party establishment can’t stand him. “The Republican National Committee and its leaders in Congress regard Mr. McCain as an apostate who has gone from defiance on particular issues to a frontal assault on party orthodoxy,” writes the Economist. This week’s edition of Time refers to “the Republican barons who say McCain is out to destroy the GOP.” According to Newsweek, “McCain’s temper has taken its toll on his relationships with fellow Republicans.” McCain himself likes to trade on his reputation for senatorial unpopularity. “As you know, I’ve been voted Miss Congeniality by my colleagues several years in a row,” he tells audiences.

Being disliked by insiders may help McCain establish his credentials as a Beltway outsider despite his 17 years on Capitol Hill. But as McCain becomes less of a dark horse and more of a contender, his professional reputation raises a real concern. Do those who have worked closely with McCain in the Senate know something the rest of us don’t? Unenthusiastic support from his own party could make McCain a fatally weak nominee. Beyond that, it raises the scenario of a President McCain being utterly “Carterized.” A Congress controlled by his own party might simply refuse to do business with him, leaving his legislative agenda DOA.

In fact, McCain is not so alienated from his colleagues as the newsweeklies tend to assume. There are two distinct groups of senators with strong feelings about McCain. The first group loves him. His fan club begins with the four Republican senators who have endorsed him–Fred Thompson of Tennessee, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, John Kyl of Arizona, and Mike DeWine of Ohio. McCain is also said to have strong personal and professional relations with a number of Bush supporters such as Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, John Warner of Virginia, and Olympia Snowe of Maine. And he is held in high esteem by several reform-minded relative newcomers: Susan Collins of Maine, Spencer Abraham of Michigan, and Sam Brownback of Kansas. In general, the pro-McCain faction tends to be more moderate than the Republican caucus as a whole, despite the fact that McCain’s voting record is quite conservative.

It is another group, about the same size as the first, that clearly detests McCain. These senators fit a different profile: They are the acolytes of Majority Leader Trent Lott. The McCain-hating “Council of Trent” includes Assistant Majority Leader Don Nickles and Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Mitch McConnell, as well as assorted Lott flunkies and henchmen like Robert Bennett of Utah, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and Slade Gorton of Washington.  

Why do these men despise McCain? They won’t say publicly–it’s actually against the rules of the Senate to criticize a colleague directly–but you get a sense of the conflict talking to congressional staff members. Some who are unsympathetic to McCain say he’s simply too temperamental and explosive to work with. Others, better disposed, say that McCain’s enemies are rivals jealous of his stardom. The most recent line, stoked by movement journalist Robert Novak among others, is that McCain is a traitor to conservatism itself. Each of these perceptions probably plays a role in the dislike of McCain, but I don’t think any of them does justice to the sentiment. McCain’s temper is no worse than that of many of those he fights with. He is much more conservative than many of his colleagues who enjoy cordial relations with the GOP leadership. And while competitiveness and envy may explain the oft-noted animosity of Orrin Hatch, these factors are too ubiquitous in Senate life to fully explain bad relations between any two members.

A better, but still insufficient, explanation is that the conflict with McCain is issue-based. McCain has been the leading Republican champion of campaign-finance reform as well as of the punitive tobacco tax, both of which the leadership strenuously opposes. Intense disagreement over the issue of campaign-finance reform does lie at the root of McCain’s death match with McConnell, who sees the Arizonan’s reform effort as an attempt to deny oxygen to the party. But even here, the conflict has transcended its roots and become, in the words of one highly placed Senate staff member, “visceral.” McConnell appears to bear no such personal malice toward other pro-reform Republicans such as Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine or Jim Jeffords of Vermont.

Another partial but insufficient explanation is McCain’s war on perks and pork. McCain was the principal sponsor of the strict Senate gift ban. He has an employee on his staff designated “the ferret,” whose job is to dig out buried appropriations earmarked for special projects in one state or another. And McCain doesn’t just take away the candy jar. He gets up on the floor of the Senate and ridicules his colleagues for attempting to reach into it. Many of McCain’s colleagues have been upset by attempts to embarrass them over spending priorities they regard as routine and legitimate. But when I asked around, no one could name a Republican senator who nursed a grudge against McCain because of his pork-busting. Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens of Alaska, a notorious pork-barreler, has an affectionate if edgy relationship with McCain. Stevens calls McCain “the Sheriff” and has a picture of him hanging on the wall of the committee office. When constituents come begging for favors, Stevens has been known to say that he’d love to help, but he’d never get them past the Sheriff. 

So, what does explain the animosity of the Lottniks? I think the key factor is McCain’s proud disloyalty. Lott prizes order and deference above all else. McCain provides neither. As readers of McCain’s book will understand, he revels in disorder and never defers to others on the basis of status or position. He treats Lott and his minions as apparatchiks unworthy of his respect, let alone his obedience. Unlike Fred Thompson and others who have also crossed Lott and McConnell, McCain doesn’t apologize for breaking ranks. He votes against his party’s leadership on the issues they care most deeply about and then lords his insubordination over them. GOP authority figures find this maddening. When McCain calls McConnell corrupt, McConnell is not only personally insulted but also outraged by what he sees as McCain’s hypocritical double standard. The term that comes up again and again in senatorial complaints about McCain is “sanctimony.”  Lott’s gang views McCain as someone who does the same things they do, but acts as if he’s morally superior. That the liberal media buy his act compounds their resentment.

All this will get really interesting if McCain actually becomes the Republican front-runner. Most of the 38 senators who have endorsed George W. Bush would likely make a graceful hop onto the winner’s bandwagon. But for Lott, McConnell, and a few of the others, it would be an acrobatic leap.