Why John McCain Was No Moderate Republican

A historian of the GOP on the late senator’s predecessors and conservative legacy.

John McCain conceding victory beside running mate Sarah Palin in the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 4, 2008.
John McCain conceding victory beside running mate Sarah Palin in the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 4, 2008. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

On Saturday, John McCain, the Republican Senator from Arizona and Vietnam veteran, passed away at the age of 81. To talk about his role in the Republican Party, and how he fits into the history of American conservatism, I spoke by phone with Geoffrey Kabaservice, the director of political studies at the Niskanen Center in Washington D.C., and the author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed McCain’s real forebears in the GOP, why he seemingly changed positions with such regularity, and what might have happened to the Republican Party if he’d ever won the presidency.

Isaac Chotiner: McCain is seen by a lot of people today as the archetypal moderate Republican, which is a now a very rare breed. Do you think that that is a helpful way to view him?

Geoffrey Kabaservice: I don’t consider it accurate to consider McCain a moderate Republican. I think that is a disservice both to moderate Republicans and McCain. I think McCain was, for the most part, a fairly traditional and consistent conservative, in the Barry Goldwater tradition, but like his predecessor as Arizona senator, McCain could also act in ways that revealed his independence, his orneriness, and what he considered his fidelity to principles. It was that maverick quality that actually did endear him to a lot of moderate Republicans, but I don’t think most moderates were under any illusion that he was someone other than a man of the right. He was the kind of Republican who made the Republican Party look more interesting, more thoughtful, more principled, and a lot better than it tends to look right now.

Right, although there was a period for McCain, after the 2000 primary loss to Bush, where it seemed like he was really, on a whole range of issues, not just the issues that he was known to care about, putting forward a moderate Republicanism based on things like a patient’s bill of rights, opposition to some form of huge tax cuts, and campaign finance reform.

I think that’s a question about how we see him now versus how he might have seen himself at the time. When an idea enters into the political arena, it’s just an idea. Often, it doesn’t have any particular political inflection until different forces coalesce for it or against it. There was nothing two decades ago, I think, that would have suggested that torture was inherently something a Republican should be for, so the fact that McCain was against it, based on his principles as well as his own hideous personal experience, didn’t make him less of a Republican, didn’t make him a Republican dissident in his own mind. It’s just the fact that because of certain neoconservative influences on the administration, torture came to be seen as acceptable in a way that it had not. Again, McCain would not have seen himself as moving toward moderation by having opposed torture.

In the same way, I don’t think campaign finance reform is inherently something that Republicans or conservatives have always been against. It’s just that for the Republican Party of that time, the forces were against the kind of reform that McCain proposed.
A lot of the things that McCain had stood for were things that moderates did not care for in the slightest. McCain was never good, as far as they were concerned, on Second Amendment issues, but nonetheless, there were issues where there was alignment between what he considered principled conservative views and the moderates’ views of how the Republican Party was changing in ways they didn’t like.

I think of McCain as someone who was incredibly driven by certain principles on certain issues, I think having to do with foreign policy, having to do with things—you brought up a couple of them—like torture and campaign finance reform, that fit into his conception of honor, and also based on his personal experience, one with the Keating Five scandal and one with what he went through in Vietnam. But there were other issues like taxes, like immigration, like health care issues, which we saw with Obamacare, where it always seemed to me like he really didn’t have strong opinions, and did feel more driven by more mundane things on a day-to-day basis, rather than having some broader conception of what conservatism was and seeing that change over various eras.

I wish that the whole Senate was full of people like John McCain, from both parties, but there’s a tendency to, in our moment of grief, assume that he was perfect and that everything he did was wonderful. He was a very human figure, and I think the people who covered him and often criticized him in the media came to be so fond of him because he really was upfront about both his mistakes and the things that he saw as where he was right. It was that effort of trying to uphold these ideals even if he would fall short that is part of the greatness of the man.

Where do you think the Sarah Palin choice fits into the broader history of American conservatism?

I think McCain knew that he needed some kind of choice on the vice-presidential front that would excite the base, and she seemed to be a good option for a lot of reasons. I think like a lot of people he had a broader misconception about the Tea Party movement, that some of its grievances could be satisfied by establishment politicians like McCain. The fact that he was part of the establishment was part of the grievance they had against him. The fact that he wanted to keep the country together, and to have Congress and even the executive operate on some kind of bipartisan basis, was precisely the objection that they had to him. I think Sarah Palin’s selection, which I believe he did regard as a mistake, was just part of a larger misunderstanding of what the conservative movement had become.

You mentioned Goldwater, who McCain discussed as a role model. But how much did they have in common, aside from the Arizona stuff?

Barry Goldwater was the leader of the conservative movement in 1964 in a way that John McCain certainly was not when he ran for president in 2000 or 2008. In fact, although he was not a moderate in my opinion, he was the person that moderates really loved in 2000, especially, when he seemed to be challenging the mainstream conservatism of George W. Bush.

I think Goldwater would now be regarded as a consistent and principled libertarian, and a lot of the culture war aspects of Republicanism that came in later on were things that he simply had no agreement with. He rather famously said that every good American should kick Jerry Falwell’s ass. There were a lot of ways in which Barry Goldwater would not be admitted to the conservative movement today.

John McCain would write occasionally or say things about his respect for Barry Goldwater and how he was trying to measure up to that legacy. I think that it was best reflected in the fact that McCain wasn’t anxiously reading polls to see what leading conservative opinion-makers or even the base were thinking about any particular issue. He would say, “This is what I think about this issue, and if I have to change my positions on this, then I’ll change my positions.” In that sense, he actually was in a tradition of conservatism that goes through Goldwater back to Robert Taft, the senator from Ohio who was the Mr. Conservative of his era. It’s that kind of conservatism that is in some ways more flexible, capable of changing its mind, that people miss about the conservative movement today.

That’s interesting about Taft, because isn’t he principally remembered today for isolationism, which is the diametric opposite of McCain?

True, but McCain was also one of the leading voices calling for the United States to restore diplomatic relationships with Vietnam after the communist takeover, and in that sense, was not so enthralled to ideology that he couldn’t take what seemed to be unorthodox stands on those issues.

Again, it’s just the question of where the conservatism comes from in the case of both politicians. My belief is that neither of them were what we would consider to be really rigidly ideological figures. In other words, most politicians in Washington, you know what their answer is going to be before the question is asked. That wasn’t the case with McCain or Taft. They were somewhat unpredictable figures. Taft notoriously reversed his position that had opposed federal aid to education and to public housing because he believed, on some fundamental level, that every American, no matter what his or her race, class, or background, deserved an equal start in life. Through hard wrestling with what that actually meant in terms of federal programs, he came to a conclusion that he had been wrong. He didn’t lose his position in the conservative movement as a result of these proposals.

Interesting, although in terms of the Goldwater comparison, McCain seems far from a libertarian to me, in the sense that it seems you could always convince him that the federal government had a role in something, whether it was overseas or at home. When you say that he was unpredictable, I always thought it was interesting that he would say that Teddy Roosevelt and Goldwater were two of his heroes, because not only was Roosevelt quite clearly not a libertarian, but it did show that he was willing to pick and choose from different areas of conservatism.

Yeah, and also that he identified with these kind of big, heroic, larger-than-life figures. I always thought there was a fairly hypocritical element to Goldwater’s libertarianism, in the sense that he grew up in Arizona before it actually became a state. It was certainly an undeveloped frontier area. It needed tons of help from the federal government to grow and prosper, and Barry Goldwater never stood in the way of Arizona receiving much more from the federal government than it paid back in the form of taxes. I think McCain had a broad libertarian streak, but he was much more in line with Theodore Roosevelt’s new nationalism, in the sense of understanding that big government was a reality and hoping to use it to achieve American greatness.

Do you see anyone in the Republican Party in Congress who is similar to McCain today?

McCain also was in politics for a long time before people really started thinking of him as “John McCain, maverick.” A lot of the people who I would think of as having the potential to be like McCain are still fairly close to the beginnings of their careers, or at least haven’t been in office as long as he has. I feel like someone like Arizona Senator Jeff Flake felt like he was following in the John McCain tradition by making the critiques of the Trump administration that he did. Of course, his career seems now to be over. It’s possible someone like Ben Sasse may evolve in that direction, but generally speaking, it’s hard to see obvious successors.

Flake seems like a very similar Goldwater type, in that he’s a much more consistent libertarian than McCain, but also someone that I think is looked to as a man of some principle, whatever critiques you want to make.

Yeah, I agree.

If John McCain had been elected in 2008, conservatism may have taken somewhat of a different turn these last 10 years. Do you ever think about what a McCain presidency, I guess either in 2000 or 2008 would have meant for conservatism and the Republican Party in some way?

That is a question I go back to, myself. I suspect then we would probably be talking about a conservatism that was marked by some of McCain’s less attractive personal features, his bad temper, his impulsiveness, but we wouldn’t be talking about a kind of Trumpian disaster situation like we are now.

Obviously, McCain’s defeat strengthened the contention of the emerging Tea Party movement that the Republican Party should not nominate establishment figures for president, that indeed clinging to a desire to govern responsibly was part of the weakness of the Republican Party in national elections. On some level, McCain’s defeat led to Trump, but I also like to think that if McCain had been elected, that you would have had a lot of other Republicans out there, who more or less go with the flow, who would have discovered some of the best aspects of McCain’s Republicanism and tried to adopt them for themselves. His willingness to consider each issue on its merits, his belief that all Americans are in it together on some level. His understanding that cooperating with the opposing party is not treachery, it’s how government has to work if it’s going to function.

I think the one way in which Trump and the conservative media establishment have made me more bullish about the future of the Republican Party is it’s convinced me a little bit that people are willing to go along with the message of the day put forward, whatever it is. So I think that if McCain were a broadly popular president, we would have Fox News hosts mimicking what he was trying to put forward. I think that Republican voters would be more amenable to that, simply by virtue of the fact that he was the leader of the party. I don’t want to fall into some liberal stereotype about how all conservatives are just waiting to follow the leader or to do whatever the leader says, but still.

I agree. I think it’s not a partisan point to say that Congress, at any given moment, has very few lions. Very few politicians are inherently leonine figures. Most of them are more ovine. It’s actually in some ways a good thing that politicians respond to success. If it turns out that Trumpism is poison for the Republican Party in the midterms and the 2020 elections, you won’t see a whole lot of Republican politicians championing Republican Trumpian positions, or just the whole Trumpian approach. You actually might see some kind of return toward moderation or at least John McCain-style principled, non-ideological Republicanism.

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