He had survived a POW camp during the Vietnam War, was generally considered a war hero, and was widely respected by people in both parties. During his 25 years in politics, he had also earned a reputation as a “maverick” for speaking openly with the press and his constituents and for taking stands on legislating tobacco and reforming campaign finance, which broke from the traditional Republican platform. That year, he earned his party’s presidential nomination and mounted a strong, but ultimately unsuccessful bid for the White House.
Today, eight years later, the word “maverick” is a political punch line. The Republican Presidential nominee is a man who has publicly insulted McCainwithout apology. The likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, who is universally reviled by Republicans, is publicly defending McCain, which is probably not doing him any favors with his base voters. There is talk of Sarah Palin becoming the Vice Presidential nominee again, because the Republican Party apparently thinks that their presidential ticket needs more Sarah Palin and less John McCain. And, Ron Paul, a conservative icon, has endorsed Kelli WardMcCain’s Primary challenger. McCain will most likely win the Senate primary this August, but winning the general election for his Senate seat is far from guaranteed, in fact he is currently facing what McCain himself referred to as the “campaign of my life”. His Democratic challenger, Ann Kirkpatrick, is a popular representative in the Arizona house who has strong support in some key demographics.
The greatest indignity is probably the fact that in order to win this campaign, McCain is having to endorse Donald Trump, who said of the Senator, “He’s not a war hero” and called him a “dummy” over Twitter. McCain has sited honoring the will of the voters as the reason to endorse Trump. And of course he is not alone in this, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, and Bobby Jindal are just a few examples of politicians who were attacked by Trump and/or attacked him and are now claiming they support him and want party unity. However, this is not exactly the type of rationale associated with a “maverick.” For McCain, a Trump endorsement probably has a lot to do with electability, as well. Trump won 47.1% of the Republican vote during the Arizona presidential primary in March, with Ted Cruz taking under 25%. These are the same voters McCain will need on his side in both the Senate primary and the general and many of them are not on his side right now. In a mid May poll McCain had a 35% approval rating and 50% disapproval rating among GOP voters in his state. With these types of ratings, in order to win, McCain will need to woo Trump supporters and voters from groups that Trump has alienated, like veterans and those opposed to Trump’s views on Mexican people and Mexican-U.S. relations. McCain has spoken out against some of Trump’s policies and statements, but it will be hard to pull off a campaign based, in part, on not only endorsing Trump but also opposing what Trump stands for.
The truth is that, no matter what happens, 2016 may be a no-win situation for McCain. After 30 years in politics, if he loses the primary to a relative newcomer like Kelli Ward, it would be a huge embarrassment. Losing the general election to Ann Kirkpatrick would be a little less embarrassing, but still a significant failure for a man who once had a shot at being president. If McCain wins and Trump wins then McCain will be faced with trying to work with a leader who clearly has no respect for him and to be part of a party and a country that elected that leader. Finally, if McCain wins and Clinton wins he will spend another four years as a member of the party that lost the presidency again, still hates the president, and still devotes a lot of time and resources to actively undermining the commander in chief, which is what has been going on for the last eight years. McCain’s best hope may be to win his own race and have Senator Sanders pull an upset and win the White House. The two don’t have much common ground on policy but, maybe, as fellow mavericks, they could at least respect each other enough to work together. Of course, that scenario is only a little more likely than McCain going back in time and deciding to retire this year, or four years ago, or eight years ago, like he probably should have.