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When It Comes To John McCain, Some Journalists Will Never, Ever Learn

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When It Comes To John McCain, Some Journalists Will Never, Ever Learn


Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters.


Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) voted yesterday to proceed to debate on an unknown Republican health care bill (or bills) written in unprecedented partisan fashion outside of the normal legislative process. Then he stood in the well of the Senate and decried partisanship and legislative hijinks. Many political journalists applauded his words and scoffed at liberals who pointed out the inconsistency with his actions, even generating convoluted, nonsensical explanations that he was setting himself up to oppose the eventual bill. Hours later, McCain proved the liberals right by supporting a proxy vote for a partisan bill written outside of the legislative process that had not been fully reviewed by the Congressional Budget Office.

It’s not a coincidence that political reporters missed the story on McCain in their rush to canonize him. They’ve been wrong about him for decades.

Political journalists love to tell the legend of John McCain, the noble, straight-talking maverick who says what he means and means what he says. The reality is much less interesting: McCain is a standard-issue Republican senator with few legislative accomplishments but an immense talent for press relations.

McCain won the affection of the press in the simplest way possible — he worked them. Beginning in the late 1990s, as he and his ghostwriter Mark Salter were reinventing him and positioning him for his first presidential run, McCain gave reporters access, treated them alternatively to respect and jocular insults, and provided a steady stream of good quotes. The deployment of the Straight Talk Express, the presidential campaign bus McCain used to charm and disarm reporters on long trips through the countryside, was a brilliant maneuver. And it worked. “The press loves McCain,” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews said in 2006. “We’re his base.”

McCain talks a good game to reporters, at times providing them with juicy quotes criticizing his party’s excesses. But his voting record in recent years is basically in line with that of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT). No one calls Hatch a maverick. On the rare major legislative issues in which he has defied his party — the Bush tax cuts, campaign finance reform, and comprehensive immigration reform — McCain has repudiated or abandoned his attempts to break with the party as they came under increasing fire from the right.

The “maverick” reputation largely unraveled among the press late in the 2008 presidential campaign, helped along by his nakedly cynical decision to pick the woefully unqualified Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. But old habits die hard, and for years we have seen declarations from political journalists and commentators that Maverick McCain is “back.”

The label even survived McCain’s decision to endorse Donald Trump (a man he fairly clearly did not trust with nuclear weapons), a clear admission that, to the extent McCain ever represented a different kind of Republican, he lost and was willing to bow to those that won. After McCain offered criticism of the president in the early days of his administration, reporters again rushed to praise his willingness to stand up for his beliefs, ignoring that he had voted for almost every member of the president’s cabinet.

Yesterday’s paean to the “need for bipartisanship” and a demand to return to “the old way of legislating in the Senate” immediately following a vote in favor of partisan legislation crafted in secret should have exposed McCain to his friends in the press. Instead, as FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver noted, there was a divide between “less traditional reporters” who pointed out McCain’s inconsistency and television and newspaper reporters who warmly received his remarks.

Here, for example, are the opening paragraphs of a CNN.com news article by White House reporter Stephen Collison: “In a Washington moment for the ages, Sen. John McCain claimed the role of an aging lion to try to save the Senate, composing a moving political aria for the chamber and the country that he loves. With a deep-red scar etched from his eyebrow to his temple, the legacy of brain surgery less than two weeks ago, McCain beseeched his colleagues to forsake political tribalism and restore the chamber to a spirit of compromise that had helped forge national greatness.”

Some in the press, noting McCain had said in his speech that he “will not vote for the bill as it is today,” created convoluted explanations for how McCain was “laying the groundwork to vote no” on a final bill. This made little sense at the time — McCain doesn’t need to lay “groundwork”; if he has a problem with how the bill was put together he could have opposed it and forced the return to regular order he championed. And in any case, McCain effectively voted for “the bill as it is today” later that night, proving his media backers wrong in embarrassing fashion.

Maybe McCain will find a way to vote “no” on one of the health care bills that will apparently come before the Senate, while voting “yes” on other versions of the legislation. If that happens, his “base” in the media will surely grab ahold of that vote with both hands and declare the senator and themselves vindicated, regardless of how little sense that makes. But expecting McCain to be the deciding vote preventing Republican health care legislation would be foolhardy. He’s a run-of-the-mill Republican senator who can be counted on to fall in line. Indeed, he almost always has.

Header image by Sarah Wasko / Media Matters



  1. Dominick Vila July 27, 2017

    Sen. McCain supports an aggressive foreign policy, consistent with the principles of American conservatism, but his vote to reject repealing the ACA without a viable replacement in place indicate that he is far from being a reckless ideologue. He did vote in favor of debating a replacement to the ACA the previous day, but that is far from being a demonstration of partisanship. One of the most pervasive facets of the GOP efforts to repeal the ACA and replace it with a plan to benefits the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, and the very wealthy, at the expense of the middle class and the poor, is the fact that the planning has been done behind close doors, without debate or even the slightest semblance of bipartisanship. Contrary to the claims being made by the GOP, the ACA was debated, conservatives made numerous recommendations, most of them focused on not using taxpayers monies to fund abortion, and many of their recommendations were accepted and introduced in that legislation. The same cannot be said for the Trumpcare proposals made to date. Debate is needed, but what is really needed is common sense. It should be obvious to everyone by now that the GOP does not have a viable plan to provide affordable, comprehensive, medical insurance care to all Americans, and that their proposals, especially the reductions in MEDICAID funding, will have a devastating effect on seniors and the poor. The ACA does have problems, aggravated by GOP sabotage, but those problems can be fixed without repealing the existing law. Unfortunately, what motivates Trump and his ultra conservative colleagues is not a desire to offer better healthcare insurance, or find viable solutions to reduce cost without impairing services, what drives the racists is an intense hatred of President Obama and a desire to destroy his legacy.

    1. Erinjarmstrong July 27, 2017

      Google is paying 97$ per hour! Work for few hours and have longer with friends & family! !pa306:
      On tuesday I got a great new Land Rover Range Rover from having earned $8752 this last four weeks.. Its the most-financialy rewarding I’ve had.. It sounds unbelievable but you wont forgive yourself if you don’t check it
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    2. plc97477 July 27, 2017

      There is also a vein of greed that runs through their attempts.

    3. FireBaron July 27, 2017

      And despite allowing the GOP to amend the bejeezus out of the ACA, they received not a single vote from that side of the aisle in either the House or Senate.

    4. "WC" July 27, 2017

      Hate is generational. Meaning that it is passed down from generation to generation. If you’ve ever read anything regarding the factual history of this nation, this is a proven fact. Don’t try to say it isn’t true, because you are only fooling yourself.

      Remember the movie “Stagecoach,” with John Wayne and Claire Trevor (please excuse my spelling if it’s not correct). Well for those who don’t know, a uppity, pompous slob turned up his nose at anyone who did not measure up to his ideals.

      Anyway he was on his way to another town, and during one of the scenes, He indicated that “America needs a business man for president” all the while he was carrying funds which he stole from the bank from which he was employed.

      Many people on both sides of the aisle (this time more so Republicans then Democrats) have done terrible things, and history proves this to be a fact.

      “I’m going to make him a one term president!” Who said that? Mitch McConnell, Senator from Kentucky. I mean isn’t that paramount to treason, or am I missing something. With that statement any fool would realize he and others were not going to do anything to advance bills or laws proposed by President Obama.

      The hate many have for him and his family was and is disgusting! To hate a man due to the color of his skin will not allow you to entertain any program(s) proposed to help you. And you continue to follow the path trodden down by individuals who care nothing about your well being and the longevity of your life.

      To sit or stand in the halls of the Senate and House and advance hate under the guise of political differences that hurts your own constituents and consider what you’re doing as the will of the people?

      When I notice the hate being spoken out as democracy, my faith tells me to forgive them for they know not what they do.

      In my opinion it’s very simple……..

      To many people feel that on the day of judgement they will be forgiven.

      But you know what……….

      You can’t wrap yourself up in the blanket of God and call yourself a Christian while at the same time making it impossible for people to exist together in love, friendship and peace.

      If you don’t ask the Heavenly Father to forgive you of your trespasses and forgive others, but instead utilize hate, lies, misinformation and deception to gain wealth, jobs or anything substantial to further solidify your ideology, what will be the end result?

      Maybe that’s something that doesn’t concern you. Maybe you don’t feel God is real? As I write this I wonder if it will all fall on deaf ears.

      It matters a great deal to me that you realize that it is important that whomever you are irregardless of race, creed or sexuality that you understand one thing. If you got anything out of this…….

      Take the time to give thanks to the Heavenly Father and his Son Jesus Christ. Continue to praise him!

      I know of no one who has passed away and returned to tell us that God forgave them.

      Lastly to all the women of this country that are fervent Trump supporters. Yes you do have the right to vote for whomever you choose. However I do have one question. Have you ever heard the term suffrage?. Let it be known that many women fought and many died so that you can have equal rights under the constitution to vote, etc.

      Yes there were many women who fought with their male peers against it. However had they been successful, where would that have left you? When you think about a women’s right to choose, have equal wages for the same work performed as men, hold prominent positions in local, state and national offices, etc………..

      And what have you done with the sacrifices so many gave for you? You turn right around and join many of the same types of people who continue to exploit the very things you should be championing against.

      Women on the right and left, together should be fighting for the same causes that are most important to and for you. Allowing men to dictate what is important and you follow lockstep behind them like a puppet on a string will not turn out the way you want to. You are important. As important as any man. Do not let the things you know are terribly wrong continue unabated.

      You should be careful not to fall into the trap of idiocy perpetrated by individuals who can care less about your overall well being.

      The similarities between what happened to bring about the second world war is eerily similar to what is happening in this country. What do I mean…….

      Fake news, the shutting out of credible news sources, propaganda officials, nationalism, blatant discrimination, extermination, deportation, bullying, you name it, it is there.

      In closing. tonight as you put your little ones to bed, etc. Think about the type of world you want them to live in. What can you do to make this world better for them.

      Well, you can start by being true to yourself and those important to you. And more importantly than that is to believe in the Heavenly Father and his son Jesus Christ and keep your faith in him strong. Through the good times and bad. Give God praise!

    5. CPANY July 28, 2017

      Excellent comment. It explains the hypocrisy of the Republicans and the naivite of the middle class who voted for him.

  2. Aaron_of_Portsmouth July 27, 2017

    Definition “Standard-issue Republican”—A person who is straight-jacketed into believing in one way of political participation and governance; a hostage to a conservative ideology, unable to operate outside boundaries of said ideology.

    With this introduction to McCain and fellow GOP’ers psyches, we can see that John never had a “Saul to Paul” moment on his journey from Phoenix to Wash.DC, contrary to what many may have thought. And journalists are still starry-eyed from watching too many Hollywood movies.

    The brain cancer diagnosis should have reminded John of life on earth as a fleeting event, passing swifter than a twinkling of an eye. But John and his peers can’t grasp this, thinking that the purpose of life is to be a stubborn myopic politician and nothing else, aside from perhaps stints doing other tasks. What John said on the Senate floor was but a brief window of clarity for John—now, it’s back to business as usual and the window curtains are drawn closed. It’s dark again.

    “O Son of Being! Free thyself from the fetters of this world, and loose thy soul from the prison of self. Seize thy chance—for it will come to thee no more.”
    (from ‘The Hidden Words’ of Baha’u’llah)

  3. Aaron_of_Portsmouth July 27, 2017

    Amateur hour on Capitol Hill is going on non-stop, featuring a collection of careerists perpetually voted into office just to draw handsome salaries and retirement and health plans paid for by taxpayers, but unavailable to most Americans, many who perpetually elect representatives who clearly are unable to function and are obsessed with power.

    And for what are such generous allowances made? Just so we have to be forced to watch a three ring circus of deceit, greed, an ongoing promotion of the protection of the rich at the expense of the poorer members of society, and the most insane, paranoid, and farcical ineptness in leadership the world has ever witnessed—from the Oval Office down to the lowest ranking Congressman? This tragic imbalance and insanity can and will only result in a disaster if allowed to continue unimpeded.

  4. Richard Prescott July 28, 2017

    Was this a premature article, or did I misread something in it.
    McCain with the 2 (abused) female Senators voted “NO” for the skinny repeal along with ALL the Democrat Senators.
    That essentially killed things as they are.
    All I know is that this has been a disastrous couple of days for Herr Drumpf.
    – He tweets about transgenders being kicked out of the military, claiming “his generals” wanted it. Yet NO ONE in the Pentagon nor JCs ever heard from him before that tweet. And the Sec Def Mattis was on vacation.
    – The new sanctions on Russia, Iran and N. Korea were voted in by both houses with only a total of 4 dissenting votes. This means that even if he vetoes it they will be able to override the veto. Russia has already threatened “retaliation”!
    – New press Secretary Scaramuchi appears to be a weird cross mini-me between Trump and Conway. He has already shown himself to be a royal tool.
    – He pissed off the Boy Scouts of America, and just about every former scout alive with his idiotic addressing at the jamboree. These are children to young adults he was talking to, not angry old white men.
    – More serious infighting in his staff has been reported about, with “firings” imminent.
    – Even McConnell might be seeing the light as he declared no recess, thwarting a potential removal of Sessions and appointing someone new without the confirmation hearings.
    – Two female Senators were physically threatened by male Senators, so a report went. Go figure. And the Dept of the Interior Sec made some veiled threats to the 2 women as well.
    – An open mic caught one lawmaker calling him crazy and the other followed up with “Yes, and not in a fun way.”
    Did I miss anything?

  5. jamcrky July 28, 2017

    Well payback finally happen to the troll in the White house…..as a Vietnam Vet I was appalled by Trump’s remarks stating John McCain was no hero because he was captured. This coming from a draft dodger who’s daddy’s money got him a deferment….Well! Payback is a BITCH……..


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