The last Republican in the age of Trump
Senator John McCain stood for the bipartisan politics of the Cold War era and against isolationism. Will his party die with him?
Ronald Reagan with John McCain in 1986 — when McCain was a Congressman running for the Senate for the first time (PHOTO BY CAROL M. HIGHSMITH VIA LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)
With John McCain’s passing, it is difficult to imagine that the character of the Republican Party will ever return to that which defined it from the end of the Cold War to the beginning of the Trump era. When Harry Truman succeeded Franklin Roosevelt, many Republicans still subscribed to the pre-war isolationist ideology that had prevented America’s joining the League of Nations and had supported the imposition of tariff barriers that contributed to the worldwide Great Depression. Isolationism was still a potent force in the party even when Senator Arthur Vandenberg, the powerful Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, threw in his hat with Harry Truman’s political and economic initiatives that included, among others, the Marshall Plan that saved Western Europe from communism; Nato, which protected Europe militarily; and the Breton Woods plans that created the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, both of which stabilised the international financial and economic systems.
It was only when Dwight Eisenhower, the former Supreme Allied Commander and an avowed internationalist, won the party’s 1952 nomination for president by defeating Senator Robert Taft that the party’s isolationist streak became dormant. But it was never really completely eradicated. Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy cynically exploited the nation’s fear of communism to impugn key civil servants during the latter years of the Truman Administration. Several years after his fall, the John Birch Society emerged as a far-right fringe group that was as opposed to racial equality as it was to communists whom, like McCarthy, it saw under every bed.
Nevertheless, in the ensuing decade after Eisenhower’s election, moderates, most of them elected in northern states, held the upper hand in the Republican Party. While advocating fiscal stringency, lower taxes, and a strong defence posture, Congressional Republicans were also generally supportive of the growing movement for civil rights for citizens then known as Negroes. It was southern Democrats who fought bitterly against any relaxation of their region’s discriminatory laws, or even for banning lynchings.
These Democrats included some of the Senate’s most prominent members. Among them were J. William Fulbright, he of the scholarships, who was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and Richard Russell, chairman of the Armed Services Committee — after whom a Senate Office Building was named, though some Senators have proposed renaming it in memory of John McCain.
Indeed, it was Senator Russell who led the filibuster against what became the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act while the Republican leader in the Senate, Everett Dirksen (after whom another Senate office building is named) led the fight to break the filibuster. In the end, a higher percentage of Republicans voted for the Act in both houses of Congress, though of course they were in the minority and the legislation would not have passed without significant Democratic support.
In 1964 the Republican moderates suffered a major defeat when Barry Goldwater of Arizona electrified the Republican Right at the party’s national convention with the words “extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice,” and won the party’s nomination for president. Lyndon Johnson crushed Goldwater in the election, however, and Richard Nixon, who won the Republican nomination in 1968, governed as a moderate Republican, and actually expanded the welfare state that his predecessor had expanded in the Great Society programme. But in both 1968 and 1972, Nixon pursued a “southern strategy” of “law and order” that was intended to appeal to southern whites who resented the passage of both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, which the Congress passed the following year. It was a strategy that, modified for the circumstances of the early 21st century, Donald Trump would employ in his own successful election campaign.
Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, was also closer to the moderate branch of the party; indeed, he named Nelson Rockefeller, the quintessential Republican moderate and leader of the so-called “Rockefeller Republicans”, as his Vice President. Ford was able to beat back a challenge from Ronald Reagan, the new darling of the conservatives, at the 1976 Republican convention; but it was Reagan who won the nomination four years later and then defeated Jimmy Carter for the presidency.
Ronald Reagan was initially perceived as a “cowboy” whose Cold War rhetoric would precipitate a world war with the Soviet Union. Reagan certainly did not shy away from public criticism of the Soviets — “tear down that wall” became a Western watchword. He advocated a significant increase in defence spending, in contrast to Jimmy Carter’s grudging acceptance of the need to shore up what was widely perceived as a neglect of the armed forces, especially their readiness. Reagan articulated many of the values that contrasted with the mores of the later Sixties and Seventies, including opposition to abortion and support for prayer in the public schools. He also declared that government was the problem, asserting that an overgrown government, propped up by excessive taxes, was riddled with waste and was undermining an economy that was suffering from stagflation.
Reagan proved to be a far more practical chief executive than his rhetoric implied and his enemies asserted. He did indeed authorise significant increases in defence spending as well as bolder naval operations that helped convince the Soviets that they could never win a hot war, or, for that matter the Cold War. He was a strong believer in America’s allies, and worked with his Nato partners to install Pershing missiles and Ground Launched Cruise Missiles in Europe to offset Soviet deployment of intermediate range missiles. Yet he was also prepared to negotiate with the Soviets, and his cruise missile and Pershing decisions laid the groundwork for the INF Treaty that eliminated such missiles from the continent. He also undertook what became the Start Treaty, which went beyond limiting the number of strategic nuclear warheads to actually reducing them.
At the same time, Reagan did not enmesh America in any major military engagements. The invasion of Grenada was a minor sideshow; as was, to all intents and purposes, the bombing of Gaddafi’s Libya in the Gulf of Sidra. Moreover, by calling it a “strategic redeployment,” Reagan terminated the deployment of forces in Lebanon in the aftermath of the October 1983 bombing of Marine barracks in Beirut. He thereby avoided America’s becoming too entangled in that complex, militia-driven country. Moreover, he did not let alliances always stand in the way of America’s moral leadership. He dispatched his close friend, Nevada Senator Paul Laxalt, to inform President Ferdinand Marcos, America’s long time Filipino ally, that it was time to step down, which the latter did, however reluctantly.
Reagan’s practicality extended to domestic issues as well; his actions rarely matched his rhetoric. He certainly was no moderate; instead he was a committed conservative, as his breaking of the air traffic controllers strike early in his administration clearly demonstrated. Nevertheless, he was no extremist either, and, while always approaching any issue from the position of bedrock, principled conservatism, he nevertheless also demonstrated a pragmatic streak as well. He called for smaller government and lower taxes, but worked with the Democratic-controlled Congress to push through a major tax hike. He never did much with regard to socially divisive issues such as abortion. He did not incite racial or any other divisions among different groups of Americans. When faced with the Iran-Contra scandal that could have brought down his presidency, he first appointed Senator John Tower to head an independent investigative commission, which, like a formal Congressional investigation, cleared him of personal wrongdoing. He then brought in David Abshire, the president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a man widely recognised for his integrity, to clean up the White House staff. Finally, and no less important, despite differing with them on policy matters, he maintained comity with the Democrats, famously playing golf with the Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill.
The spirit of mutual respect that governed Reagan’s relationship with O’Neill had long been a hallmark of Congressional behavior. Even the Watergate scandal had witnessed cooperation between Sam Ervin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Select Committee conducting the Watergate investigation, and the Republican members who served on that committee with him. Certainly, there were always members of Congress, particularly in the House of Representatives, who spoke for the extreme wings of their respective parties. In the main, however, members of the House and Senate did not permit partisan differences to interfere with personal relationships. Thus although they were ideologically remote from each other and were bitterly divided over the Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork to a seat on the Supreme Court, Senators Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy maintained a widely recognised friendship and on occasion worked together to lead bipartisan passage of key legislation, such as the landmark act that provided health insurance for half the nation’s uninsured children, and the 2009 Volunteer and Education Act that focused on national service. Similarly, Alaska’s Senator Ted Stevens and Hawaii’s Daniel Inouye were so close that they were seen, and described themselves, as virtual brothers. Their relationship enabled them to pursue a generally bipartisan policy on matters of defence spending regardless of which party was in the majority. Indeed, it was difficult to identify any differences between them.
Joe Biden presents McCain with the 2017 Liberty Medal. Years earlier, their caucus leaders had warned them not to sit together (© William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)
The same spirit of personal comity despite political differences marked the administration of George H.W. Bush. Despite having fought what many thought was a vicious presidential campaign that highlighted his opponent’s release of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who was black, once in office, Bush maintained good ties across party lines.
Matters deteriorated significantly with the election of Bill Clinton, whose liberal inclinations and personal pecadillos Republicans bitterly resented. With the 1994 Republican takeover of the House under the leadership of Speaker Newt Gingrich, the majority party began a process of investigating Clinton’s financial and personal practices that led to his impeachment, only the second in American history. By now the political had become personal, and Congressmen and Senators reached across the aisle at their peril. As former Vice President and Senator Joe Biden opined at John McCain’s funeral service in Arizona,
I would go sit next to John [in the Senate chamber], next to his seat or he would come on the Democratic side and sit next to me . . . It was ‘96, [we were] about to go to the caucus.
We both went into the caucus and coincidentally, we were approached by our caucus leaders with the same thing: “Joe, [it] doesn’t look good, you sitting next to John all the time.” I swear to God, same thing was said to John in your caucus.
The spirit of mutual respect became ever more tenuous during the administration of George W. Bush. Bush won widespread support for America’s retaliation against the Taliban in the aftermath of 9/11; won a vote in the Congress when America attacked Iraq; and won Democratic support for an immigration bill that his own party torpedoed. Nevertheless, Democratic hostility both to the Iraq war in particular as well as to his domestic policies rose to fever pitch during his second administration.
The Republicans more than reciprocated in kind. But not all Republicans. Well before John McCain stood for president a second time, this time against Barack Obama in 2008 — he had been soundly defeated by George W.Bush in the race for the 2000 Republican nomination — he became the leader of what came to be called “the three Amigos” — after the movie of that name. The other two “amigos” were Republican Senator Lindsay Graham and, importantly, a Democrat, Senator Joe Lieberman. After McCain won the 2008 Republican nomination for president, Lieberman was first choice for the vice presidential slot. As might have been expected, however, the right wing of the Republican Party pressured McCain to drop the idea, even though by then Lieberman was sitting in the Senate as an independent, rather than as a Democrat, having been shunned by his party for his hawkish views. Instead McCain chose Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, whose increasingly strident tone subsequently made her a heroine to the radical Republican right, especially those who adhered to the group that called itself the Tea Party.
Barack Obama’s victory inflamed Republicans, not necessarily because he was black, but rather because he was viewed — rightly as it transpired during his terms of office — as a representative of the left wing of the Democratic Party. Upon Obama’s taking the oath of office, with his policies yet to be implemented, Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell already made it clear that he would do everything to undermine the Obama presidency.
John McCain nevertheless proved to be an exception to the attitude that far too many Republicans displayed toward the new administration. Although he differed sharply with most of Obama’s domestic and foreign policies, he continued to reach out to Democrats as he had done prior to his electoral defeat. As he had done in the past, he always invited Democratic colleagues to join him on his frequent overseas travels. They would join him when he met foreign leaders, as well as when he participated in international conferences. He would share the stage with Democrats, notably at the Halifax Security Forum, where he would delight the assemblage with his well-worn jokes. Moreover, even after Lieberman retired from the Senate, he would include him in his travels and in pre-conference planning meetings that he would organise for his delegations. One leading Democratic Senator told me that he would attend conferences just to demonstrate his solidarity with John.
McCain did not practise bipartisanship purely for its own sake. He was not only a committed internationalist, he also advocated a muscular American national security policy that went beyond merely increasing defence budgets. He chaired the International Republican Institute, which was committed to advancing democracy worldwide by helping to develop the effectiveness of both democratic activists and national political parties. To that end, he supported IRI’s close cooperation with its political counterpart, the National Democratic Institute. Not surprisingly, the IRI would incur the wrath of authoritarian regimes such as Russia and Cuba, against which McCain, in his inimitable style, would fulminate at every opportunity.
At the same time, however, McCain did not hesitate to criticise Democrats who opposed a strong national security posture. In particular, he lashed out at Democrats, as well as members of his own party, who opposed George W. Bush’s controversial 2007 surge of American forces in Iraq. McCain’s instincts proved to be correct, as, ironically, they had also been accurate when he opposed Ronald Reagan’s initial decision to deploy American forces to Lebanon. Moreover, McCain was also prescient when he fought against Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw American forces from Iraq by the end of 2011; just as the surge had changed America’s fortunes in the war for the better, the withdrawal paved the way for the emergence of IS and for the redeployment of American troops to that embattled country.
By the time the 2016 presidential election took place, McCain was the acknowledged leader of those who favored American intervention abroad, whether they were Republicans who identified with neo-conservatives or Democrats who were liberal interventionists. Yet even those in both parties who did not necessarily adopt his strongly-held views about the employment of American power abroad shared his commitment both to active American leadership of its long-standing alliances, and to friends such as Israel, as well as his hostility to authoritarian regimes.
McCain was fearless in confronting dictators or their representatives on the international conference circuit; his inclusion of Democrats in addition to Republicans on Congressional delegations (termed CODELS) conveyed to allies, friends, neutrals and enemies a sense of American purpose, coherence and bipartisanship that sadly did not reflect the reality at home.
Once Donald Trump was elected president, however, McCain no longer felt compelled to emphasise the coherence of American policy. On the contrary, he did not hesitate to speak out against Trump’s disdain for long-standing alliances, or his seeming willingness to kow-tow to dictators. No one who heard him speak at an international conference was under any illusion that McCain had anything other than disdain for the man who nominally had secured the White House for the Republican Party but in actuality was redesigning that party in his very personal image.
To quote Vice President Biden’s eulogy once more, “All politics is personal. It’s all about trust. I trusted John with my life.” McCain made it very clear that he did not trust the new president with his life or with anything else. Even in death, the Republican from Arizona signalled that his views of the putative leader of his party had not changed at all, and neither had his commitment to personal comity, and when feasible, bipartisanship as a national imperative. Apart from Biden, his leading eulogisers were his opponents in presidential races: George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Obama was frank about his disagreements with McCain, which, he joked during the National Cathedral memorial service, were a daily occurrence. But the former president, perhaps the most left-wing Democrat ever to sit in the Oval Office, also had this to say about the departed conservative Senator from Arizona: “He did understand that some principles transcend politics, that some values transcend party.” And he added, “While John and I disagreed on all kinds of foreign-policy issues, we stood together on America’s role as the one indispensable nation, believing that with great power and great blessings comes great responsibility.” In the meantime, Donald Trump was nowhere to be found; he was leading rallies that still called for locking up Hillary Clinton as well as railing on Twitter against the FBI, the Mueller investigation, and Canada.
Lindsey Graham is the sole member of the “three amigos” still serving in the Senate. Kelly Ayotte, the dynamic Senator from New Hampshire whom McCain adopted upon Lieberman’s retirement, was defeated in the 2016 election. It is an open question whether Graham, or indeed any Republican, can fill the great Arizonan’s shoes, for McCain, though a principled conservative, not only was a voice for bipartisan leadership in international matters but also, on occasion, in domestic affairs. He supported campaign finance reform and immigration reform, and voted to preserve the Obamacare health legislation, all of which remain anathema to many, if not most, Republicans.
Many moderate Republicans have left their party, instead registering as independents. That some 90 per cent of those who remain Republicans are strong supporters of the current administration should be a cause for concern. For the question for the remaining ten per cent, who, like myself, have thus far chosen to remain in the party, is whether it will revert to that of Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, John McCain, or, for that matter, Abraham Lincoln, or whether it will remain mired in the pettiness, narrowness, prejudice, and cowardice in which it now finds itself. Should the latter prove to be the case, the party’s future will come increasingly into doubt, and it may well go the way of earlier American parties, like the Whigs and the Know Nothings, whose characteristics it has increasingly come to share and who were eventually relegated to the dustbin of history.