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McCain prevails but road ahead unclear

Sen. John McCain won the Arizona primary Tuesday and is favored to win a fifth Senate term.  However, his role in his party and national politics is uncertain. 
Image: John McCain
After losing the 2008 presidential election, Sen. John McCain had to rebuild his connection to Arizona's Republican base.Eric Thayer / Getty Images

What's to become of John McCain?

Until Nov. 4, 2008, the Arizona senator could cherish the hope that his future depended more on New Hampshire and Florida voters than on those back home. But with his loss to Barack Obama in the presidential race, McCain's Arizona electorate reclaimed its career-ending power over him.

His victory in the Arizona Republican primary Tuesday proves that his home-state appeal will live to fight another day.  How his role in the Senate and the national Republican Party will evolve if, as expected, he wins a fifth Senate term this November is less clear.

In tone and emphasis, the McCain who won on Tuesday isn't the irreverent underdog who became a news media darling after beating George W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary in 2000.  Also gone is the maverick who irritated his party's base by reaching across the aisle on key issues for much of his time in the Senate.

Can McCain revert to his identity circa 2006 as a consensus builder who bridges partisan divides? Times are different; maybe McCain is too. For a glimpse at how his party’s politics have changed, look no further than the senator’s recent shifts on two of his signature issues.

Immigration: In 2006, McCain joined forces with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to lead the effort to pass reform legislation that included a path to legalization for illegal immigrants.

The McCain-Kennedy bill allowed illegal immigrants to become permanent legal U.S. residents, and ultimately American citizens, if they'd worked for at least three of the previous five years, paid a $2,000 fine, and met certain other conditions.

Sometimes forgotten today is the wide support McCain's bill enjoyed in 2006.  It passed the Senate 62 to 36, with 22 Republicans (including today's GOP leader Sen. Mitch McConnell) joining McCain in voting for it.

But the bill languished and died when House GOP leaders decided to emphasize border security and ran the 2006 campaign partly on an anti-amnesty platform.

This year, attentive to an aroused citizenry in his state, McCain has used the tagline “complete the danged fence” and urged that more troops be deployed on the border to keep illegal immigrants out.

He began to move away from his 2006 position in 2008 when he ran for president, saying “secure our borders first,” before moving to legalization of those here illegally.

Obama charged that McCain had “abandoned his courageous stance” from 2006.

McCain denies that he has changed, blaming a biased news media. "I know how popular it is for the Eastern press to paint me as having changed positions. That's not true," he said in an interview with Politics Daily's Jill Lawrence last week. "I know they're going to continue to say it. It's fundamentally false."

Many in the news media "would love to see John McCain, the nominee of the Republican Party, in serious trouble," he added.

Campaign finance: McCain, the former crusader for limits on campaign spending spent more than $20 million to defeat his primary challenger, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth.

Dan Schnur, McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign communications director, said he was surprised by “the sheer magnitude of force” McCain used to crush Hayworth.

“From a distance, it appears that the senator’s advisors were very intent on not letting him be surprised by an insurgent the way other candidates have been this year,” he said.

In 2002, McCain scored one of his biggest successes when Congress passed — and President Bush signed — the McCain-Feingold law which banned unlimited corporate and labor union funding of political party-building efforts. The law also restricted "issue ads" which targeted candidates — adding to the existing ban on corporations and unions running ads calling for election or defeat of a specific candidate.

Last January, the Supreme Court struck down the part of the law dealing with political ads, ruling that corporations have a First Amendment right to buy electioneering ads.

"Political speech must prevail against laws that would suppress it," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority. This freedom, the majority said, even applies to corporations.

Despite the mortal wound inflicted on one of his trademark pieces of legislation, McCain had only a terse response, saying he was “disappointed” but that the ruling left intact the ban on unlimited direct corporate funding of candidates and parties.

Election year star?
As McCain has dedicated his efforts to fending off the primary challenge from the right, his time spent helping other Republicans has been limited, and will likely continue to be.

McCain’s value as an endorser or surrogate may be confined to places such as New England where he retains popularity.  He went to New Hampshire last March to campaign for Republican Senate contender Kelly Ayotte, and he endorsed Scott Brown’s Senate bid in Massachusetts last January.

But party dynamics elsewhere make him less effective.  In Florida, for example, it was Gov. Charlie Crist who helped push McCain to victory in the 2008 GOP presidential contest.  Now McCain finds himself unable to return the favor.

Faced with a challenge from conservative Marco Rubio, Crist exited the GOP to run as an independent Senate candidate. Despite his friendship with Crist, McCain said he’d support Rubio: “I'm a Republican and I support Republican candidates.”

And, looking forward to the 2012 Republican presidential contest, it's difficult to see much of a role for McCain.

“It's unlikely that his endorsement would be helpful in the 2012 primary campaign,” Claremont McKenna College political scientist John Pitney said. “Very few Republicans came out of the 2008 campaign thinking more highly of him. Conservatives still distrusted him. Moderates were disappointed by his shifts to the right. Professionals were appalled by the disarray in his campaign.”

'Important decisions lie ahead'
Now with a fifth term in the Senate likely, McCain will be free to revert to his role as a Capitol Hill “lifer” — he began there in the late 1970s as a Navy liaison to the Senate.

“McCain's greatest strength lies in national security issues. His most important role will consist of his work on the Armed Services Committee, particularly if the GOP gains a majority and he becomes the chairman,” said Pitney. “Important decisions lie ahead on Afghanistan, terrorism, and crises yet unknown.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, among others, notes that the Pentagon’s one-fifth share of federal outlays will be under severe pressure in the years ahead.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that defense outlays will grow by only 1 percent a year over the next eight years, compared with nearly 6 percent annual growth for Medicare spending.

As senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, or maybe someday its chairman, McCain will have a decisive voice in where troops are deployed, and what ships and drones are built.

One example of the hard decisions McCain will help make, the topic of an Aug. 4 hearing before an Armed Services subcommittee: the replacement for Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines.

"We're working hard to get the cost of that down, but even if we're really successful, those are still going to be about $5 billion apiece," Gates said a few weeks ago.

McCain’s future role on immigration is, at best, unclear.

“It's hard to see how McCain — or anyone else — can build consensus on comprehensive immigration reform,” Pitney said. “Such a task would take patience, diplomacy, and a deep reservoir of friendship on both sides. John McCain is not famous for any of those things.”

Schnur said with the likelihood of more Republicans in the Senate next year McCain might have an opening to act as middleman, the role he played in 2005 as part of the “Gang of 14” along with Democrats such as Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas to avert filibusters of judicial nominees.

“When you’re one of 40, there’s a limit to how much practical impact he can have,” Schnur said. “If you’re one of 48 or 49, there are other roles that are available. In a more evenly divided Senate, the possibility remains for him to play a different type of role than he has as one of a strongly outnumbered minority.”

Corruption, intolerance
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, could provide a role model for McCain on how to resume a Senate career after losing a presidential election. In addition to his job as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry has been one of those leading the effort to pass a bill to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

But unlike Kerry, McCain once built a reputation as the righteous scold of those in his party whom he sees as corrupt or intolerant.

“To stand up and take on the forces of evil, that’s my job,” he said in 2000 as he denounced evangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as “agents of intolerance.”

McConnell, a Bush supporter, put it aptly in 2000 when he said McCain “would have to do a lot of work to convince a lot of Republican base voters that he is one of us — because the issues he has emphasized in recent years have all been Democratic issues.”

That’s what made some Democrats and some in the news media love McCain.

Some even fantasized about him being their 2004 presidential nominee. In 2002, in the liberal magazine The New Republic, writer Jonathan Chait urged McCain to run for president against Bush as a Democrat, citing his opposition to Bush’s 2001 tax cuts and calling McCain “the most popular and effective champion of the Democratic Party’s values.”

Today, that sounds like farce or fiction. But it was written before the invasion of Iraq and while Obama was still an obscure state senator in Illinois. It’s a reminder of how much has changed, both in McCain and in his former admirers.