The fight’s back in John McCain

Soon after the Senate opened its long-awaited debate on healthcare legislation last week, John McCain strode into the chamber to spearhead his party’s opposition to the massive bill. He offered Republicans’ first amendment and leveled the party’s most politically stinging charge -- that cuts in Medicare spending would hurt the elderly.

A day later, McCain took the lead in grilling President Obama’s team on its newly minted plan for the Afghanistan war. Why, McCain pressed, had the president set a deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops?

“A withdrawal date only emboldens Al Qaeda and the Taliban,” he said.


He’s been down, he’s been out, but the Mac is back.

McCain still strikes his signature pose as war hero and scourge of special interests, but in other ways McCain is cutting a very different profile than he did before he ran for president in 2008.

Gone is the maverick bridge-builder who bucked his party on high-voltage issues such as immigration, climate change and campaign finance reform.

As the GOP has settled on a strategy of unremitting opposition to the Obama agenda, McCain has been front and center on the attack.

The Arizona senator has not been making unique arguments against Obama’s policies. But he has found a unique niche: In a party where congressional leaders are largely little known and short on charisma, McCain is a colorful political celebrity.

At a time when the marquee names in conservative circles are outsiders like Sarah Palin and Fox News commentator Glenn Beck, McCain has emerged as one of Obama’s most formidable opponents in Washington -- especially on two of the most burning issues of the day.

On healthcare, he led the charge in trying to stir older Americans into opposition. And on Afghanistan, he has played the war hero and defense expert, accusing Obama of playing into the Taliban’s hands.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), with whom McCain has tangled bitterly over campaign finance legislation, now could not be more effusive in his praise.

“He’s been a fabulous team player,” McConnell said in an interview. “All I can tell you is that, in this Congress and post-campaign era, Sen. McCain has been incredible -- on message and effective.”

It remains to be seen whether McCain could ever win over hard-boiled conservatives outside Washington who recoil over his past cooperation with Democrats on immigration and other issues.

But McCain is still regarded as enough of a political asset among independent voters that the National Republican Senatorial Committee recently used his voice on recorded phone calls to swing voters in the home states of conservative Democrats such as Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska in an effort to pressure the lawmakers to buck their party on healthcare.

Perhaps predictably, Democrats prefer a different McCain.

“I’ve always seen two John McCains -- one who has the partisan, angry side; and a nice, cooperative, bipartisan side,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who has been working on climate change legislation that McCain has opposed. “I have not seen the bipartisan side in a long time.”

McCain says he still is working productively with Democrats -- on efforts such as cutting the deficit with Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and military acquisition reform with Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

On higher-profile issues, some Democrats see McCain turning more partisan because of bitterness at his 2008 defeat, but his friends say the increasingly polarized political environment makes it harder for anyone to cross party lines.

“He seems to be more aggressive,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). “The Democrats are finding it harder to reach out to him because the person who beat him to the White House is pursuing a very liberal agenda.”

One thing is clear: McCain has not returned from the campaign trail with the sullen, grim attitude that some would-be presidents have had -- even though he had to make the same transition after his failed 2000 bid for the GOP presidential nomination.

“I spent a little time dwelling on it, but found in 2000 the best thing is to get busy,” McCain said in a recent interview. “The best cure for all this is getting back in the arena.”

After Obama’s resounding victory, it was not immediately clear whether McCain would jump back into the Senate with an olive branch or a clenched fist.

Indeed, the same question faced his party: Would a demoralized GOP take a more conciliatory tack toward a new president who came to office with enormous popularity? The conciliatory option quickly faded, as almost every Republican -- including McCain -- opposed Obama’s $787-billion economic stimulus bill.

Last week’s big change in Obama’s Afghanistan policy could have been a ripe arena for cooperation between the two erstwhile rivals because McCain supported increasing U.S. troop strength in the war.

But when Obama announced his new strategy, McCain was quick to attack a key element.

He had spoken to a top military official days before the policy was announced, and said he was told that Obama would not set a deadline for withdrawal.

During Tuesday’s hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain grilled administration witnesses about the apparent contradiction between setting a deadline and saying it would be reassessed based on conditions on the ground.

“Which is it?” McCain fumed. “You can’t have both.”

It was more surprising to find McCain on point for his party on healthcare. In the Senate, his last major healthcare initiative was bipartisan -- the “patients bill of rights” measure he co-sponsored in 2001 with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Last week, however, when he took to the floor to offer his amendment to strip out the proposed Medicare cuts, there was nothing conciliatory or bipartisan about his speech.

McCain accused Democrats of “Bernie Madoff accounting” in their assertion that the bill was fiscally responsible. He complained that it had been written in secret in the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), not in front of C-SPAN television cameras as Obama had promised in his campaign.

“C-SPAN cameras are still waiting outside Sen. Reid’s office,” McCain said. “Keep waiting, C-SPAN -- we’ll get you in.”

But his 2008 campaign came back to bite him when Democrats pointed out that, as a presidential candidate, McCain had also proposed Medicare reductions to pay for his healthcare initiative.

“The idea of saving money in Medicare is certainly not something with which the senator is unfamiliar,” said Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), prompting a testy exchange with McCain.

McCain, whose amendment was rejected in a party-line vote, was in a far better mood Friday after he finished leading fellow Republicans in an hourlong series of floor speeches criticizing the Democratic bill.

“I thank my colleagues,” McCain said, grinning broadly. “It’s been a lot of fun.”