For New York Magazine, Joe Hagan has written the definitive account of the John McCain’s last 18 months, describing how McCain has gone about dismantling “the carefully constructed political identity [top aide Mark] Salter had been nurturing over the last decade.” If there is a fault to the well-reported story, it is that Hagan falls back on an old trope, trying to personify the two sides of McCain’s political identity in two of his top aides–Mark Salter and Rick Davis. It’s an oversimplification, which helps in the storytelling but gives McCain himself too little credit. Hagan writes,
[A]s panic overtook McCain in early 2010, it would be [aide Rick] Davis who channeled it into a tactical short game, advising him to co-opt [Republican primary opponent J.D.] Hayworth’s political turf by tacking into his positions, out-tea-partying Hayworth on immigration. Consequently, McCain’s Arizona tail wagged his Washington dog: McCain would soon reverse or greatly reel in his previous positions on torture, on cap and trade, on gays in the military, and, finally, crucially, on immigration. “Rick Davis carries the most influence with John,” says a McCain intimate. “Salter’s on the outside.”
This metaphor–using aides to describe the contradictory parts of McCain’s political presentation– was used often during the 2008 campaign, though back then the conflict was usually between John Weaver (champion of the moderate, maverick McCain) and Rick Davis (the cutthroat, win-at-any-costs organization man). Another way of explaining the same contradiction is to pose it as an expected consequence of the maverick pose, which only succeeds with consistency.
Politicians, especially those that last, tend to be “mavericks” when it suits their political interests, which it often does. McCain was, at least in comparison to his own party, a legitimate maverick for a time. But that identity of integrity and country first, which he still uses to sell his political brand, has in recent years run up against another core McCain trait, which is also common among veteran politicians: A fierce desire for self-preservation.
It is McCain’s misfortune that his current circumstances–and the circumstances of the latter months of the 2008 campaign–forced him to choose between his maverick identity and electoral chances. As he chose to improve the latter, he undercut the credibility of the former. This is a battle that McCain is fighting with himself. To say he is a puppet to the aides perched on his shoulders risks missing the point.
Later in the story, Hagan quotes an unnamed “friend” of the Senator describing the situation in rather harsh terms:
“There are two John McCains. . . The one I love is a very big man, and he’s willing to take on big issues in a big way. Then there’s another side of John, he’ll admit, that is petty and angry and petulant and small, and that side has overtaken the other one.”
A more charitable way of putting the same sentiment would be to say that one McCain is the politician he aspires to be, the one that Salter created over the course of several bestsellers. The other McCain is the one who can’t afford to lose again.