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Chait vs. Costa: Is McCain Savvy or Unhinged?

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To accompany the interview I conducted with John McCain for the current issue of The New Republic, I called up Jonathan Chait of New York magazine and Robert Costa of National Review for a conversation about McCain’s career and his psyche. An edited transcript is below. — Isaac Chotiner

Isaac Chotiner: Thank you guys for doing this. So, Jon Chait, McCain’s taken another ideological step back towards the left and I was just wondering about your reading of why, and how it fits into your broader theory about who he is.

Jonathan Chait: It’s a good question. I’ve always had a somewhat different interpretation of McCain than most people. Most people thought that his left turn was entirely due to bitterness with George W. Bush. But it actually preceded the campaign. He started moving left on economics in 1999, before he was really on the map of the Republican establishment, before he was considered a threat, before he started getting attacked by the mainstream Republicans for being a threat to George W. Bush. So that momentum just continued throughout the campaign and throughout the first three years of the Bush presidency. Something happened to shake him loose a bit from his ideological mores, and it’s not entirely clear what it was.

IC: Do you buy that theory, Robert?

Robert Costa: When I evaluate McCain’s political politics I don’t look at the long game. To me John McCain post-2008 is an entirely different than John McCain before the 2008 campaign. That’s mostly because when you look at his inner circle, from pre-the 2000 campaign, ‘til 2008, it was Mark Salter, it was others who were very close to him. But they all almost left his camp after he was defeated as the Republican nominee. And I’ve covered him a lot, I’ve interviewed him a lot, and one thing I just find him is entirely unpredictable, and I don’t actually buy that he’s even changing right now. I think right now he’s grasping for some kind of way to be a “statesman,” however he defines that to be. Sometimes it’s on the right like it was in 2010 with immigration; now it seems to be more working with the White House on different issues. But I think McCain can change his ways tomorrow, and so I think this idea that he’s going to be moving to the center-left right now on several issues ….well, if I were the president I wouldn’t be betting too much on that.

IC: Just to ask you about that, though, and to go back to the stuff Jon was saying—I know he had to get reelected in 2010—but it seems like if he’d wanted to be a major, major player in the Obama agenda in 2009 he could have been. I mean, he had a lot of political capital to do that. And it seemed like he chose not to do that and he’s choosing much more to do it now, and it does somewhat coincide with his clear dislike for elements of the Tea Party and especially the sort of Rand-Paul-Mike-Lee-Ted-Cruz wing in the Senate, right?

RC: No, that’s exactly right. I think McCain’s relationship to the Tea Party his souring on the Tea Party is a key element of his recent maneuvers. I think McCain has a lot of—I think he, Lindsey Graham and others who have been making deals for a long time have grown almost tired of the Tea Party, and though McCain went to the right hard in 2010 he doesn’t have any relationship with the right flank of the senate. He doesn’t have much of a relationship at all with the conservative grassroots and the activists around the country, and if anything he’s irked by them, and you see it with his comments about the “wacko birds.”

IC: Right—

JC: Every position McCain took or reinterpreted from 1999 to 2003 realigned himself on the left. And actually he was siding with the Democratic Party on all the major issues, domestic policies of the Bush administration in the first term. It’s pretty clear that in 2004 he decided he was going to run for president [in 2008] and then he just got himself right with the Republicans on pretty much all those issues one-by-one, just went through as many as possible of the areas of disagreement that sat between him and the Republican party establishment.

IC: He stuck left on immigration for a while, though. I mean he tried to help Bush in 2006, 2007?

RC: I think he’s actually much more savvy [with immigration] than just trying to be a headline-grabber. If you talk to people who are close to Marco Rubio they deeply appreciate how McCain was able to step back during this current immigration debate and let Rubio take the floor, let Rubio take the reins of the debate. McCain recognized that he was toxic to many conservatives and that Rubio would be the better salesman for the bill. And so as much as McCain is out front now, and working with the White House, perhaps drafting an end-of-the-year fiscal bargain, on immigration he was strategic on how he played his own political capital.

IC: Well, one thing I was just gonna add—

JC: Can I just answer one question before taking his point, which is that when McCain adopted the position on immigration in 2006 he was getting in with the Bush administration and the elite wing of the Republican Party. Then the Republican base revolted against it, making that position unpopular and forcing him to abandon his own position, which he subsequently did. 

IC: What do you think of that, Robert?

RC: I think that’s right. I think Jon’s so right that it was much more of a calculation for 2008 during the 2006-2007 immigration debate, it’s more that the party has moved away from its own establishment position.

IC: One thing that I think is also interesting is that—his consistency has been on defense issues, right? And what I do think is interesting is now, especially in the last six or nine months when McCain has sort of moved a bit, that the Tea Party position on defense issues and sequestration, and now all this surveillance stuff, really is going against McCain’s long-held beliefs. The Tea Party has been a force in American politics for several years now, but it sort of hasn’t been until now that defense issues have really—that the Republican elites who favor the sort of defense policy that McCain does have really had to face off against these guys.

RC: I think that’s spot-on. I think actually McCain’s consistency on defense is what keeps him at the center of gravity within the Senate Republican Conference. His maverick ways really irk a lot of conservatives and Republicans, they’re irritating still to many but his consistency on Bush-era policies, on foreign policy and national security, have made him almost a counterbalance to the ascent of the libertarians and Rand Paul. And so when you see the arguments today between Chris Christie and Peter King and Rand Paul—the hawks who are still very much a part of the party look to someone like McCain to be their force in the senate.

JC: I agree with that. Sequestration was a strategy by the Obama administration to turn factions of the Republican Party against each other. What happened was the hawks were almost completely marginalized within the party. But one of the few remaining hawks was McCain, and the Republicans essentially decided that everyone was going to get priority but the hawks, that they would stand by their position on social security, that they would stand by their position on taxes, and just let anything happen to defense. 

IC: Well, I was just going to ask—the two times in my interview when McCain got somewhat defensive were, one, when I asked him about this psychology of anger stuff, and the other time was when I brought up Palin, who he’s clearly really defensive about. The reason I was interested in the Palin aspect is that by choosing her he clearly had some role in setting off this Tea Party wing of the party which he now seems pretty opposed to. I was just wondering—Robert, you don’t need to violate any sources—but have you heard anything from people that McCain regrets his decision? It seems like he’s been very clear that he does not, or at least he says that he does not.

RC: I think it’s complicated. I think the Palin decision five years on remains a complicated one for McCain because he’s so stubborn personally—he’s very resistant even privately to say—to acknowledge that he has any reservations about the pick. But it’s clear that he does not associate himself at all with Sarah Palin’s politics, and that even now among conservatives he does not really get credit—

JC: I agree with what you were saying about McCain’s stubbornness about refusing to admit that he had changed, that in 2000 he refused to admit that he had really changed his views on taxes or that they were so inconsistent with the past. But taxes are a good example. He used to be a Reaganite tax conservative, then became essentially a Democrat on taxes, opposed to cutting taxes for the rich on grounds of both fiscal responsibility and inequality. Then he just abandoned that and endorsed the continuation of the Bush tax cuts that he opposed, and never really conceded that he had changed. You see the things like the cap-and-trade plan where he obviously is changing his position—he doesn’t really concede that anything different is happening.

IC: Yeah. Well, Robert, do you want to just finish what you were saying about Palin?

RC: Yeah. I think Palin is a minor chapter in John McCain’s political career. And I think right now she’s almost—she’s not a major player in national Republican politics, she’s probably not even a player, not even a factor at all in John McCain’s politics. She’s more a part of John McCain’s history than anything.