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Posted at 4:14 PM ET, 12/ 3/2010

John McCain and the perils of independence

By Ezra Klein


John McCain's shameful and hypocritical performance at the hearings on "don't ask, don't tell" has sent James Fallows into another round "Whatever happened to John McCain?" How could yesterday's enlightened maverick be today's retrograde crank?

The sad fall of McCain gets at a larger issue, I think: Washington's strange affection for "independence." As it happens, independence of the form McCain displayed is quite rare. In the introduction to their book "Ideology and Congress," political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal explain that their system for estimating polarization fails "in a few cases" of extreme erratic voting patterns. The example they give is McCain.

"John McCain (R-AZ) started as a conservative, became a moderate after losing the Republican nomination to George Bush in 2000, and recently reemerged as very conservative," they write. This is usually where one of the explanations for McCain simply stops: He's an opportunist who's swung left and right when swinging seemed beneficial to his career.

But Congress doesn't lack for opportunists. As Poole and Rosenthal say, however, McCain's record is extremely unusual. The question is why he's so different.

The answer, I think, is that the thing people call "independence" is not necessarily a sign of a free mind, which is how it's often presented, but merely one attached to different things. McCain's independence relies on a "friends with benefits" relationship to his policy positions. He's sponsored cap-and-trade bills and now vociferously opposes them. He fought the Bush tax cuts amid lower deficits and now supports their full extension amid yawning debt. He was open to repealing DADT and now opposes it. He worried about income inequality during the 2004 election and now hardly mentions it.

McCain's career makes more sense through the prism of electoral opportunities and personal resentments than policy commitments or philosophical beliefs. In this, you could say that he's missing some crucial protections from motivated skepticism. But perhaps it's better to observe that when you hear someone is independent, it's worth asking, "Of what?" McCain seems free from the substantive commitments that anchor other legislators, but that's just let him be captured by his circumstances and relationships.

Photo credit: Hyungwon Kang/Reuters.

By Ezra Klein  | December 3, 2010; 4:14 PM ET
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"McCain's career makes more sense through the prism of electoral opportunities and personal resentments than policy commitments or philosophical beliefs."

McCain's career makes the most sense if viewed through the prism of what stance makes him politically significant and will maximize his face-time on the Sunday morning chat shows.

If you recognize that McCain is nothing more than a self-promoting celebrity, his erratic behavior makes perfect sense.

-- MrJM

Posted by: MrJM | December 3, 2010 4:53 PM | Report abuse

The maverick persona was just a facade that worked at the time. He ditched it because it no longer served him. He wanted to run for President and then he wanted to get reelected this year.

McCain is a phony that will don whatever suit serves him at the time.

Posted by: SteveCA1 | December 3, 2010 5:10 PM | Report abuse

I'm not an MD or Psychologist, but it isn't hard for a layman to detect when a person has past the milepost separating normal rational thought from senility.

McCain cannot remember day to day what he himself has said, and he can't even recall how many houses he has. He makes statements (lies) that are contradicted by widely known facts (and then he denies the facts).

He's over the hill mentally and he'll be the last to know it and acknowledge it. Combined with his preening narcisism and overt resentment that that black man defeated him for president, he's a very loose cannon on deck.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | December 3, 2010 5:15 PM | Report abuse

--*John McCain (R-AZ) started as a conservative, became a moderate after losing the Republican nomination to George Bush in 2000, and recently reemerged as very conservative*--

Sorry, but McCain has never been "very conservative". To assert otherwise is to have embraced the narrative of the propagandizing main stream media.

I've been of the opinion, for long years, that McCain is quite literally insane. Look closely at the way he talks, the way he interacts outside scripted events, and it's plain that there is something "loose" in him. He really is not all there. It is that disconnect from reality that has been spun into "maverick", but in reality, he's not just a quaintly crazy maverick, he is really insane. He is an utter goofball.

McCain should quit inflicting himself on the nation and go live out his remaining years in quiet.

Posted by: msoja | December 3, 2010 11:34 PM | Report abuse

It's a good thing that John's 2nd/current wife has so much money. John is now ready to receive around-the-clock assisted care as senility has begun to take its toll. Perhaps his fellow homophobe-disguised-as-friend-of-the-gays daughter Meghan can stop writing for The Daily Beast for a while to change her father's Depends while the nurses take a break.

Posted by: JFredSmug | December 3, 2010 11:37 PM | Report abuse

McCain is, and always was, a tool of wealthy conservative Republicans. Just a tool.

Posted by: thebobbob | December 4, 2010 12:03 PM | Report abuse

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