Why John McCain Matters More than the GOP Realizes
Without McCain, Republicans have no clear leader on defense issues. Not that they ever listen to him, anyway.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is the leading national security voice of the Republican Party and has been for at least a decade now. That’s a problem, for the GOP, and the American people.
Let me explain — but first, we at Defense One were saddened to hear the news of McCain’s ill health and wish him luck and strength in his latest fight ahead. If anyone can beat cancer with sheer annoyed willpower, it’s McCain. Many of us reporters have been on the receiving ends of his tirades — against the media, against Obama, against damn near everything — but they usually began or ended with a wink. I once watched him walk up to a press gaggle outside the Senate gallery, listen intently to a young reporter’s earnest first question, and finally say with a twinkle in his eye, “Are you really wearing that tie?” McCain knows how to disarm and work a roomful of fans and critics, like the best politicians America has produced. We thank him for remaining, through all his career ups and downs, one of the most open, accessible, and transparent elected officials in Washington.
Now, here’s the problem. If the Republicans have a coherent national security vision and defense policy ideas, I don’t know who else would tell us other than McCain and his sidekick Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. On defense issues, we know them well. Republicans long have relied — or put up with — McCain acting as a public face, reasoned voice, and listened-to leader of the conservative ranks. But McCain lost the 2008 election to Obama, badly, and Graham barely registered in the 2016 shark tank primary. The party base, hell, nearly everyone, kind of adores McCain, but frankly, the party bosses ignore him. And it’s on them to figure out what to do after he leaves. They’ve had 10 years to start thinking about the next generation of national security leaders, and who might command as much respect, knowledge and street credibility with the U.S. military and Pentagon leaders. But as with most things national security, GOP (and, frankly, Democratic) leaders in Congress have made it clear that they have other priorities. Hey, that’s fine, politics is politics. But the neglect is magnified in times like this week, when President Donald Trump says he is still looking for someone to explain why the U.S. has been in Afghanistan for nearly 17 years, and we all await the Trump administration’s new war plan. It matters that the leading Congressional voice on that war from the right of the aisle is absent, and now facing down a life-threatening health scare. McCain has no love for Trump, and has stood on his stump to say so, but he has plenty of love for the troops and the outcome of that war. He’s personally invested in its outcome, after 17 years of oversight hearings, delegation visits, and shouting matches with top generals before his committee. I imagine not being here for this moment is eating him up inside. Do you know who could explain Afghanistan to Trump? McCain.
Need an example to illustrate how Congress’ big four party bosses often treat their own national security committee leaders like Harry Potter in the cupboard under the stairs? Look at the Budget Control Act and its sequester mechanism. Every single Republican and Democratic leader of the Armed Services committees told then-House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., not to do it. They made detailed cases for how spending caps and the unthinkable sequester across-the-board cuts would and could harm national security, military readiness, and America’s ability to respond to global threats. They begged the political bosses not to play politics with the military. They were all ignored. Politics is everything.
A lot of members of Congress probably want to be the next Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. How many want to be the next Armed Services Chairman John McCain?
For years, the GOP tried to ignore McCain, but he persisted — often with unpopular stances, sometimes with unwise ones. He is a leading believer of the principle of diplomacy backed by force; that America is better poised to talk down its enemies when it has a stronger military. He’s the most prominent military-spending watchdog since William Proxmire retired in 1989. He remains an ardent defender of President George W. Bush’s unpopular decision to surge thousands of troops into Iraq in 2006, when all hope looked lost. He made a point to publicly clash in hearings with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey over it. McCain frequently calls for American military intervention in the Middle East sooner and with more might than President Barack Obama was willing to order. He even called for Dempsey's resignation for being hesitant to send military might into Syria. Yet McCain doesn’t write blank checks to the military, and he demands the White House present Congress with a strategy to back any use of American troops, so that the American people know what they were fighting for. He stood nearly alone in his party in calling for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison and even tried to help Obama do it, as much as he felt he could. Together they failed, for many reasons. But The Maverick remains a maverick.
Many Americans might not know McCain travels extensively, joining most major global security conferences, often far from American cable TV, but in the rooms where the international community sets its intentions and paths ahead. There, he is revered as a statesman and global leader. This March, at the Brussels Forum, I watched it happen again. A roomful of liberal European leaders, angry at Trump and Brexit voters and all things right of center, treated McCain like a rock star. Members of parliaments and college interns lined up to snap photos with him. Reporters encircled him for comments. A few conferees gave him a little piece of their minds. And he, graciously, accommodated them all. No other defense or national security leader in the Republican party, much less in Congress, is afforded that respect and admiration. Nobody else commands that kind of global attention.
One reason may be the Republican party has turned its back on moderate security voices, and has little to show for it. A few years back, I covered a National Defense University awards banquet for Brent Scowcroft. Henry Kissinger was there, and I expected many GOP leaders in the defense world as well. But not a single serving Republican lawmaker showed up. I wrote at the time the event was a tribute to “bygone centrism.” Before the dinner, I asked Kissinger if he was worried the GOP was turning away from centrists and needed more voices like Scowcroft. Kissinger leaned in and said, wryly, “You can never have enough Scowcroft.”
The GOP seems to think they’re doing just fine without Scowcroft, a mentor to Defense Secretaries Robert Gates and Ash Carter, and Scowcroftian views. Like McCain, he is treated as an outlier in the contemporary politics being waged by majority leaders and House speakers. Hell, Scowcroft’s policies barely match what the GOP’s own leader, Trump, says today.
I’m a national security editor in Washington with 20 years in this town. I can’t tell you who would be the lead Republican voice on defense issues, if not McCain or Graham. There’s a pool of potential successors — and yes, emerging stars across the Senate Intelligence and Foreign Relations committees, like Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. — but no clear contenders carrying the torch for defense. McCain’s counterpart in the House, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Tex., has the budget hawk reputation, but he’s still a new chairman and the House Armed Services Committee hasn’t had the power it used to wield for years. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has made a serious try. So has Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex. Neither comes close to McCain. And frankly, nobody seems to care. War rages. American fighters are getting killed. But there’s an Obamacare to repeal. A Russia scandal to investigate. A filibuster rule to change. Again, that’s fine, but the GOP ignores McCain, his legacy, and his clout, at their peril.
It’s frequently said that McCain is ignored for good reason. He’s out of step with what America wants the military to do — whether he’s right or wrong, they say. Half the country thinks he was wrong to sing in jest “bomb, bomb, Iran.” The other half thinks he’s wrong to have spoken out against the extreme views of Trump and other alt-right emergers in his party. His most recent critics have taken to tweeting back at him that despite all his forceful statements objecting to Trump or defense spending or other security issues, he hasn’t put his votes where his mouth is. He toes the party line too often to be a real maverick, they say. As if he would stop being a senator, first.
Fine, maybe all that is fair, but so what? At least he’s saying it. At least McCain is standing up and making coherent and eloquent statesman-like speeches in the chamber, in Europe, in halls and on TV screens around around the world. Tirelessly. At least he’s articulating a cohesive foreign policy for America and conservatives, even if coming from the old guard and not the Trump-Tea Party militaristic isolationists wing of the party. My god, he’s the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and holds the purse strings on over $600 billion of Pentagon budget. When he doesn't like a weapons program, that building quakes. When he doesn’t like a policy, his committee colleagues listen, leaders of the armed forces hear it, and we in the media give him the air time and consideration his position and stature warrants.
Why doesn’t his own party?
It’s not about whether his policy positions are right or wrong; it’s that there’s nobody else close to his caliber articulating security policy for Republicans. It’s that he’s practically all they’ve got.
The problem with Republicans isn’t that they have John McCain. The problem is they don’t have anyone else like him. The party — and the country — could never have enough John McCain.
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