The New John McCain, Just Like … Mitt Romney?

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Arizona Senator John McCain pauses during his speech at the Republican National Convention in Tampa on Aug. 29, 2012

There’s no way to know what John McCain really thinks of Mitt Romney, who was enjoying draft deferments in France while McCain was an invited guest at the Hanoi Hilton. They obviously didn’t get along during the 2008 campaign, when Romney attacked McCain’s departures from Republican orthodoxy on immigration, taxes, cap and trade, Guantánamo and campaign-finance reform. It had to have been annoying, being lectured about conservatism by the former moderate governor of Massachusetts. But on Wednesday night he called Romney “my friend.” It’s possible, I suppose.

What’s interesting, and a bit sad, is that McCain has stopped departing from Republican orthodoxy ever since he lost to Barack Obama. He has embraced the kind of flip-flopping he used to mock when Romney was doing it.

(MORE: Viewpoint: Shame on You, John McCain)

He was once a leader in the legislative fight against global warming, but he has bowed out in the present era, denouncing an Obama cap-and-trade bill that was quite similar to his proposals on the campaign trail. He also voted against Obama’s Dream Act for undocumented children, even though he used to support it, and against the Disclose Act for transparency in campaign contributions, even though it was once his pet cause. He co-sponsored a bill for the deficit commission that later became Simpson-Bowles, then voted against his own bill once Obama endorsed it. I wonder if the whole experience has made McCain more sympathetic toward Romney’s, uh, ideological flexibility.

Obama hosted a dinner to honor McCain’s record of bipartisanship the night before his Inauguration, but when the battle over Obama’s stimulus bill heated up a few days later, McCain was clamoring behind the scenes for partisan unity, amusing Republican colleagues who had never considered him much of a team player. When his friend Joe Biden looked for Republican Senators who might cross the aisle, the Vice President could tell McCain was too bitter to help the rival who had crushed his dreams.

“Look, it’s tough, man,” Biden told me in an interview for my new book, The New New Deal. “It’s a hard thing to be that close.”

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McCain’s speech on Wednesday was about foreign policy, and there it must be said he has not flip-flopped one bit. He showed that he’s still an all-out war hawk, calling for a more aggressive stance against Iran, a more aggressive defense of Israel, a more aggressive something-or-other in Syria. It reminded me of watching him on the trail in 2008 after Russia did something to Georgia, prompting McCain to declare that “we are all Georgians” and practically threaten to launch World War III. I don’t think we’re all Georgians, and I doubt Romney thinks so either. But McCain and the neocons still run the Republican foreign policy show in the GOP, and Romney has gone out of his way to suck up to them as a presidential candidate.

On Wednesday, McCain didn’t talk about Iraq, the greatest failure of the neocons, or Osama bin Laden, the greatest success of Obama, or even Libya, which seemed to work out pretty well even if Obama did “lead from behind.” He just talked about his faith in America as a kind of global cop, saving oppressed peoples from tyrants all over the world. “I trust that Mitt Romney has that faith,” he said.

Maybe. He’ll probably say he does on Thursday night. And then, if he becomes President, he’ll have to ride the neocon tiger on foreign policy, just as he’ll have to ride the Tea Party tiger on domestic policy. He’s on the record in favor of both agendas, and Presidents tend to do what they say they’re going to do.

The question is whether he’d flip-flop in office. As McCain knows, anyone can do it.

(PHOTOS: Republican National Convention 2012)