By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
© 2008 New York Times News Service
Sen. John McCain was all but a sworn enemy of Sen. Trent Lott, the former Republican leader.
Lott had quashed McCain’s most cherished legislative goals. And, worse, McCain believed that in the 2000 Republican primaries, Lott had spread rumors about his mental stability on behalf of McCain’s rival for the nomination, George W. Bush.
But when Bush turned on Lott in 2002, helping to push him out of the leadership over a racially insensitive remark, McCain saw a shared grievance and found an opportunity. He leaped to Lott’s defense, urging Republicans to stick by him.
“He said, ‘I know how you are feeling; you have been treated unfairly,”’ Lott recalled. “I am a grateful guy, and I will never forget it.” A legendary dealmaker with a deep store of chits, Lott became a valuable ally to his former foe, backing him in public debates and less visible Senate intrigues.
Their alliance was just one step in the political reinvention of McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Previously a marginal player better known for heckling the Senate than for influencing it, McCain returned from the 2000 campaign with a new national reputation and a new political sophistication.
Over the next eight years, he mastered the art of political triangulation – variously teaming up with Lott against the president or the new Republican leaders, with Democrats against Republicans, and with the president against the Democrats – to become perhaps the chamber’s most influential member.
“He was looked upon as the magic ingredient in any legislative deal; the addition of John McCain was going to greatly improve its chances of success,” said Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist who studies the Senate.
Former Sen. Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader until 2004, agreed. With the possible exception of the two party leaders, he said, “I can’t think of many senators more influential.” Daschle said that McCain’s power easily surpassed that of Lott’s successor as leader, Bill Frist, because many senators discounted Frist as the White House’s agent.
To partisans on either side, McCain’s path could be puzzling, even infuriating. On the defining issue of the Iraq war, he hammered both sides: the White House for its execution of the conflict and the Democrats for their opposition. On immigration, he joined the Democrats and the White House to battle his own party. And to the Republican leaders, he was a serial turncoat on other domestic matters, marching at the head of a Democratic column into fights over tax cuts, campaign finance restrictions, Alaskan oil drilling, access to generic drugs, gun-show sales, pollution caps, the Sept. 11 commission and the use of torture.
“I returned to the Senate with greater influence than before I ran, and I used that influence to work with senators on both sides of the aisle,” McCain said in an e-mail message. “I don’t believe in hoarding political capital just for the sake of possessing it.”
Now his Senate record itself is up for debate in the presidential race. McCain’s supporters argue that he demonstrated the kind of bipartisan bridge-building that his Democratic rival for president, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, has often pledged but seldom displayed. Democrats counter that McCain, of Arizona, was a fickle gadfly who ultimately traded his independence to pander to the right, in particular by pledging this year to retain tax cuts he once faulted as favors to the rich.
“You couldn’t tell which John McCain would come to work on any given day,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, an Illinois Democrat close to Obama.
McCain’s friends say his record reflects his singular personality – a reverence for principle and a willingness to change, a drive to solve problems and an impulse for mischief. But they agree that a very different John McCain returned from his first presidential race to become a central player in almost every high-profile debate of the Bush administration.
“John McCain prior to 2000 would not be known for his legislative skills or achievements,” said John Weaver, a former McCain adviser. “He voted with his party, and people ran to him on national security. But being the swing guy after 2000, he knew his turf was valuable, and he could use it to achieve things.”
He learned how to play the game, said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., who often worked with McCain. “He is a lot more savvy than a lot of people realize – targeted, tactical, strategic – and sometimes only he knows what his real objective is,” Nelson said.
McCain, 71, acquired the sobriquet “maverick” only about a decade ago. When he was first elected to the Senate in 1986, after two terms in the House, he was in the mainstream of his party. He even made a credible, though unsuccessful, run for a party leadership post.
But his popularity did not last. First, there was his “truculent nature,” as he calls it. His Republican colleagues call him aggressive, brusque and abrasive. He later adopted the habit of publicly scolding other senators about their special privileges, from pet spending projects to airport parking spots. But what Lott called his “cuddling up” to the Democrats further has strained McCain’s relations with his fellow Republicans.
“I suppose over the last 10 years he has passed more significant legislation than any senator around,” said Sen. Judd Gregg, a conservative New Hampshire Republican frequently at odds with McCain. “But that doesn’t necessarily entail being liked.”
Some call him aloof. Former Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a soft-spoken Rhode Island Republican, said, “I always imagined that I was the plebe and he was the senior at the Naval Academy: You knew your rank, and you were supposed to respect that.” (Chafee is supporting Obama.)
But his heroism as a prisoner of war in Vietnam has given McCain a special prestige, and he has made a point of cultivating junior members in the Senate, whether Democrats like Russ Feingold of Wisconsin or Republicans like Susan Collins of Maine, unaccustomed to the attention of a senior lawmaker. “He is smart enough to know that in the Senate every vote counts the same,” said Collins, now a close friend.
Before the 2008 campaign heated up, McCain would go to dinner about twice a month in Washington – he favors spicy Vietnamese food, the movie “Borat” and trading jokes about colleagues – with a small group of Republicans that included Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Sen. Michael DeWine of Ohio and the actor and former senator Fred D. Thompson (who briefly jumped into this year’s Republican primaries himself). Entertaining guests at his property in Sedona, Ariz., he invariably drags them for long walks to indulge his passion for bird-watching. “If you took all the people at Gitmo, put them in the cabin for a weekend and made them listen to John talk about the birds, they would all spill their guts,” Graham said.
McCain’s friends say his ideology has always been ad hoc – limited-government conservative by default, but open to expanding government authority if the goal seemed important. But aside from pushing various campaign finance overhauls, he was a reliable Reaganite until around 1998 – his first big break from his party – when the Republican leaders chose him to negotiate a bill that would address tobacco lawsuits and finance public health programs.
As conservatives outmaneuvered him on the floor, McCain lashed out at his fellow Republicans, accusing them of turning a cold shoulder to children’s health. The Democrats rose in a standing ovation.
Three years later – the Monday after President Bush’s first inauguration – McCain held a news conference that amounted to a declaration of his independence from either political party.
He would respect the new president’s agenda, but not because he was a Republican, McCain said. He would have respected a Democrat’s just as much. “But,” he added, “I also have a mandate.”
He returned from the 2000 campaign full of new motivations. Although he had spent 18 years in Congress, McCain’s advisers say the campaign was his first face-to-face confrontation with domestic issues like global warming and health insurance costs.
“He had been in the Navy or the Senate his whole career, and he hadn’t had a lot of chance to get out there and find out what the American people are thinking,” said former Sen. Warren B. Rudman, R-N.H., who said he had watched McCain revise his views as he moved through scores of town-hall-style meetings.
McCain’s assessment of his political prospects had changed, too. The 2000 Republican primary had cemented McCain’s maverick image. He had made overhauling campaign finance the cornerstone of his campaign and started attacking upper-income tax cuts, corporate greed and Christian conservatives. Returning to the Senate, McCain wondered if he had alienated his former base.
John Zogby, a pollster McCain often consults, told him that the race had inverted his political profile: Democrats and independents liked him more than Republicans did. But he was also one of the most popular politicians in the country, and his biography as a war hero had kept a solid floor under his conservative support.
“It suggested that he would be able to finesse conservatives,” Zogby recalled in an interview. He told McCain that continuing to buck his party would be “very astute.” (The 2008 primary was a close call, but Zogby argues that he was vindicated: McCain won.)
McCain needed little encouragement. He still smoldered over what he considered the dirty 2000 primary, especially the slander campaign he believed had been waged against him. He had been liberated from party loyalty, Graham said.
“There was almost a sense of freedom,” Graham said. “It reinforced his impulse: I am going to be me.”
McCain’s friends say the senator has always been drawn toward conflict. On Senate breaks, one of his favorite pastimes is official travel to war zones. Within days of returning from a grueling trip to Iraq and Afghanistan, McCain rushed up to tell Collins, “Did you see there is still trouble in Sudan? We need to go there next!” she recalled.
Graham said, imitating McCain’s husky, hurried voice, “If there is a ‘500 people killed in government protests’ article in the paper, John will always call me up: ‘We need to go there! Sounds like it’s interesting!”'
A similar impulse drew McCain into Senate battles as well, Graham said. “The man will run across the street to get in a good fight,” he said.
McCain wasted no time. For most of his career, he had kept his distance from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., wary of his record of pulling Republicans into grand compromises. “I have watched other people fall under that guy’s sway, but I am not going to,” McCain used to tell his aides, recalled Mark Salter, his chief of staff.
After the 2000 election, however, McCain pulled up a chair at Kennedy’s desk near the back of the Senate floor. “Ted,” McCain said, according to a Kennedy aide present, “patients’ bill of rights, I want to work with you.”
McCain had opposed the proposals, which would make it easier for patients to sue their insurers, and the White House promised a veto. But soon he was huddling with Kennedy and the bill’s other sponsor, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, each morning in a room off the Senate, plotting strategy.
“He would say, ‘OK, this guy in my caucus is a lawyer and he is going to say this. Who do we got that is a lawyer to talk to him?” Salter said. “`Who do we got? Who do we got?’ It is like laying out a battle plan.” When the bill passed with nine Republican votes, Democrats credited McCain. (The measure died in conference with the House, though.)
Soon he was cooperating with the Democrats on so many issues that he made a habit of stopping by Daschle’s office “to tell me what was going on in his caucus, give me advice, give me reports on a lot of the things he was working on, how the negotiations were going,” Daschle said. “Of all the Republicans with whom I worked, he was the most cooperative.”
When Daschle and Kennedy tried to persuade McCain to switch parties, McCain listened and his advisers spread the word around. Speculation about whether he would defect increased his leverage with Republican leaders.
McCain collected on debts earned during the election, too. He refused to stump for Republicans unless they agreed to support his “reform agenda,” and he boasted that his unwillingness to campaign for Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington contributed to his narrow loss in 2000. “If they weren’t for it, I didn’t go,” McCain told the author Elizabeth Drew. “Some changed their positions.”
After their rapprochement, Lott often began supporting McCain, too: on a campaign finance rule, the immigration debate and in criticizing Donald H. Rumsfeld, then the defense secretary. “When people looked up and saw those two working together, a lot of them were shocked,” DeWine said.
Other times, however, McCain used his bipartisan appeal to put pressure on his Democratic friends on behalf of the White House. “He was a tremendous resource,” said Nicholas E. Calio, a former White House legislative liaison to the Senate, adding that McCain helped round up Democratic votes for trade agreements, domestic security measures and the Iraq war.
McCain lobbied his Democratic friends to vote to authorize the invasion, even berating them, several Democrats said. “He was very forceful,” said former Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla. “He told me the issue was over: ‘We ought to get on with the vote, stop this meaningless pontification.”’
When McCain campaigned for President Bush’s re-election in 2004, Democrats accused him of hypocrisy. “After what happened to him eight years ago and some of the statements he made, I couldn’t quite understand the things he was doing, the appearances he was making with the president,” Durbin said.
But McCain was still a frequent impediment to the White House. In 2005 and 2006, for example, he spearheaded battles to prod the administration to sign laws banning the use of torture on military detainees. His talks with Vice President Dick Cheney on the subject degenerated into shouting matches, aides on both sides say. He felt that negotiating about torture with Cheney “was like negotiating bank reform with Bonnie and Clyde,” Weaver, the former McCain adviser, said.
Other times, McCain worked behind the scenes. In 2005, Frist, then the Republican leader, staked his reputation on a standoff with Senate Democrats over several of the president’s judicial nominees that escalated into threats about rewriting Senate rules or shutting down all debate.
Both McCain and Lott publicly supported Frist. But both also had an interest in his failure, McCain because Frist was a potential presidential rival and Lott because he had taken his leadership post.
McCain, who had never taken much interest in judicial confirmations or Senate traditions, set out to lead a bipartisan group that could find middle ground. Participating risked the wrath of partisans and interest groups on either side, and the senators involved pledged confidentiality.
But several now say that the Democrats involved negotiated on behalf of their leaders, and that the Republicans, including McCain, worked against Frist.
Lott publicly disavowed the effort. But he helped recruit some Republican allies to complete the group, and helped fashion the ultimate deal.
The group, dubbed the Gang of 14, emerged from McCain’s office with a deal to confirm some of the judges and stop Frist from rewriting the rules. Editorials across the country hailed McCain as a champion of bipartisanship and moderation. And political analysts began to write off Frist.
Lott, who declined to comment about his role in the Frist episode and the details of the 2000 race, commended McCain. “I don’t want to call it Machiavellian, but it was quite a snooker play,” he said.
Weaver was more grandiose. “Lyndon Johnson would be proud of that move,” he said.© The New York Times. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.