The Big Idea

The Saddest Senator

Why John McCain has become so painful to watch.

John McCain

I’ve stopped reading news about John McCain for the same reason I tune out the daily updates on Afghanistan and the BP oil spill: It’s just too damned depressing. Well into the 2008 primary season, McCain still showed glimmers of a gutsy, independent spirit, speaking out of turn and bucking his party on issues of conscience, like the use of torture. Since losing to Barack Obama, however, he’s turned into the kind of party hack he used to live to mess with.

In the last few months, McCain has flipped his position on dropping the military’s anti-gay “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, soft-pedaled his support for climate-change legislation, and dropped his support for humane, comprehensive immigration reform. In just the past week, he has come out against Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court nomination on the lamest of grounds and defended Arizona’s ugly anti-immigrant law against challenge by the Justice Department.

It’s hard to believe that this is the same guy who, a decade ago, was denouncing Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as “agents of intolerance,” who reduced Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to a sputtering rage with his efforts to ban soft money, who opposed Bush’s tax cuts, and who stood up to Dick Cheney on the treatment of accused terrorists. When McCain told Newsweek earlier this year that he has never considered himself a “maverick,” it sounded like another confession under duress, with the Tea Party standing in for the Viet Cong.

This is the conventional interpretation of McCain’s collapse: that he has had to fall into line because of the primary challenge he faces in Arizona. Lindsey Graham *—who has gone from McCain understudy to McCain replacement in the role of “sane Senate Republican not from Maine”—said as much in a recent interview with the journalist Robert Draper: “John’s got a primary. He’s got to focus on getting re-elected.” The Republican running against McCain, J.D. Hayworth, a former member of the House and popular talk radio host, has pressed hard on the hot button of immigration, charging McCain with supporting “amnesty,” an unfriendly characterization of McCain’s former view that it would be cruel as well as impractical to try to deport the approximately 12 million people who are in the United States illegally. By Graham’s hopeful logic, McCain will begin edging back to the center once he secures his party’s nomination in late August and, if re-elected, will throw off his chains and do his maverick dance once more.

I doubt this will happen, however. Part of the reason is that a politician can only shift on his axis so many times and be taken seriously. And part is that McCain’s personality does, unfortunately, seem to have changed in a more fundamental way. Running for president in 2008 was as bad for McCain as running in 2000 was good for him. Playing the rebel against the Republican establishment made him young again. Running as his party’s standard-bearer turned him into a grumpy old man.

To some extent, this is a matter of physical decline. As the inside account of his campaign in Game Change makes clear, fatigue brought out McCain’s cranky side. With his stiffness from war injuries and scars from cancer surgeries, McCain looks older than a lot of 73-year-olds—and apparently feels older, too. The other factor may be the reactivation of McCain’s powerful sense of dishonor. Bear with me here, because what follows is surmise based on long observation rather than hard evidence. But McCain looks to me these days like someone who bears an unacknowledged weight. If I had to guess, I’d say that weight is his shame over a barely competent presidential campaign and his awful choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate.

In the past, McCain has dealt with fractures to his sense of honor in extraordinary ways. When he succumbed to Vietnamese torture and signed a “confession” as a POW, he attempted suicide. “I felt it blemished my record permanently, and even today I find it hard to suppress feelings of remorse,” he wrote in his first book. Years after the Keating Five scandal, McCain wrote that the episode “still provokes a vague but real feeling that I had lost something very important, something that was sacrificed in the pursuit of gratifying ambitions, my own and others’, and that I might never possess again as assuredly as I once had.” After he ended his 2000 presidential campaign, McCain returned to South Carolina, where he lost the primary to George Bush, and apologized for not opposing the flying of the Confederate flag over the State Capitol. “I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary. I chose to compromise my principles. I broke my promise to always tell the truth,” he said.

If, as I suspect, McCain relives his 2008 failure as a shame on the scale of these other events, he can’t simply apologize again. Surrounding himself with lobbyists, truckling to the right, and reversing a series of positions were the essence of his campaign, not momentary lapses. Acknowledging his mistake in picking Palin—someone he must know was utterly unready to become leader of the free world—would be politically suicidal. In choosing her, he created a monster whose support he now needs in his primary.

So instead of grappling with his damaged honor the way he has in the past, by examining his soul and apologizing, McCain has retreated into a kind of political second childhood. When he started out in politics, it was as an extremely conventional, Sun Belt Republican. It took the Keating scandal to get McCain to question the campaign-finance system and turn him into the independent spirit he became in the 1990s. Since losing in 2008, he has reverted to his earliest political incarnation.

Toadying to the right wing of his party has left McCain angry, frustrated and—to his old admirers—deeply disappointing. But as disappointed as some of us may be with the latest John McCain, I suspect he is even more disappointed with himself.Like  Slate on Facebook. Follow us  on Twitter.

Correction, July 12, 2010: This article originally misspelled Lindsey Graham’s first name (Return to the corrected sentence.)