Retracing John McCain's Bipartisan Roots

Political Junkie

John McCain's VP choice will be eagerly watched by doubting conservatives and those concerned about his age.

Sen. John McCain returns Wednesday to the Naval Academy, where he proudly graduated fifth from the bottom of his class. It doesn't seem to have hurt him any. After all, he's speaking as the Republican Party's presumptive nominee for the White House.

All this week, McCain is visiting old stomping grounds as a way to "reintroduce" himself to voters. On Tuesday, he was at Episcopal High School outside Washington, where in the 1950s he earned the nickname "Punk."

"I arrived here a pretty rambunctious boy, with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder," McCain said. "I was always the new kid and was accustomed to proving myself quickly at each new school as someone not to be challenged lightly."

McCain insisted that he has mellowed in the years since, although he joked that some detractors might not see it that way. As a lawmaker, McCain has shown a notable ability to work with colleagues from across the political spectrum.

Even before he was elected to Congress, McCain worked on Capitol Hill as the Navy's liaison to the Senate. His office in the Russell building was a popular hangout for Senate staffers, and for some of the Senators, too.

"We used to go down maybe once a month or so, put up our feet and talk," recalled former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart. Even though Hart's a Democrat, he and McCain became friends. Hart later served as an usher at McCain's wedding.

McCain's father had also been the Navy's liaison to Congress, in the 1950s. Hart says the younger McCain seemed like a throwback to that less-partisan era, when politics stopped at the cocktail hour and at the water's edge.

"It was very much my impression that that's who he was," Hart said. "Where national security and the defense of the nation was involved and support for the military, you didn't see it as one party versus the other, you saw it as a consensus national endeavor."

In 1982, McCain won his first election to the House of Representatives. It was early in the Reagan Revolution. But when other, more fervent House Republicans stormed the political barricades, McCain held back. He refused to join the "Conservative Opportunity Society" formed by Newt Gingrich, Vin Weber, Dan Lungren and others.

"I liked many of them, and often agreed with them, but I had reservations about some of the scorched earth tactics they were beginning to employ," McCain wrote in his memoir, Worth the Fighting For.

Weber, who is now a lobbyist, said that's not surprising.

"He does value tremendously and has shown over his career an ability to work across party lines," Weber said. "And the purpose of the Conservative Opportunity Society was explicitly to confront the Democrat majority and help bring us to majority status of our own."

McCain's bipartisan spirit only went so far, according to Lungren (R-CA).

"John McCain could reach across the aisle and talk with people. But he also felt that we were on one team, and they were on the other," Lungren said.

Indeed, McCain's lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is 82 percent. But his work alongside Democrats is what McCain is best known for, whether it's teaming up with Sen. Russ Feingold on campaign finance reform, working with Sen. Joe Lieberman on global warming, or as part of the "Gang of 14" senators — both Democrats and Republicans — to broker a compromise on President Bush's judicial nominations.

That work with Democrats has earned McCain lasting suspicion and even animosity from the most conservative Republicans. GOP rival Mitt Romney tried to capitalize on that during the primary.

"I would say Sen. McCain has demonstrated strong leadership for liberal causes," Romney said during a January campaign stop in California. "McCain-Feingold, McCain- Kennedy, McCain-Lieberman are all three liberal efforts. I guess I think there's going to be a real battle here for which way the Republican Party is going to head."

McCain won that battle, in the primary at least. He argues that Americans are tired of so much partisan gridlock.

"In case you all missed the latest polling numbers, approval ratings of Congress were 24 percent or something like that," McCain said during a town hall meeting in San Diego last week. "People want us to work together."

Early on in his House career, McCain was taken under the wing of longtime Arizona Rep. Mo Udall, a Democrat. Udall was "uncommonly generous" to a member of the opposite party, McCain writes in his memoir.

McCain has followed that example, said Udall's son Mark, now a Democratic congressman from Colorado. The two shared a western pragmatism, and they shared a military background, as well.

"When you serve in the armed forces, the last thing people care about is your political party affiliation," Mark Udall said. "The first thing you care about is keeping faith with your brother, and now today your sister, serving next to you. Then your allegiance is to the United States of America."

McCain picks up that military thread Wednesday, when he visits Annapolis and his old Navy flight school in Pensacola.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: