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How John McCain Got His Groove Back

Sen. John McCain at a rally in Denver during his 2008 presidential campaign.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
Sen. John McCain at a rally in Denver during his 2008 presidential campaign.

All of a sudden, Sen. John McCain matters again.

It's not like he disappeared. But after being sidelined for a time by his 2008 defeat in the presidential election against Barack Obama, the Arizona Republican has re-emerged as one of Obama's most important allies in the Senate.

McCain took the lead in crafting immigration legislation that passed the Senate in June. Last month, he came up with the deal that prevented the Senate from abolishing judicial filibusters, allowing several Obama Cabinet and agency nominees to win confirmation.

With GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Whip John Cornyn of Texas both nervous that working with Democrats might hurt their re-election chances next year, McCain has suddenly stepped up as the most important Republican Obama can do business with.

"It's fascinating," says Tom Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "He's back in the game — a game he played well before he ran for the presidency — and he's having fun."

All this has earned McCain renewed enmity among Republicans who have been reminded of his wayward habits. Activists sometimes refer to him as "McRino," a reference to the acronym for "Republican in name only."

But it's left McCain with a level of influence that's highly unusual for a former presidential nominee.

"We don't have many examples of this," says George C. Edwards III, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University. "I don't think there's anyone who's played a role quite like McCain is playing now."

Well-Worn Path To Pasture

In the distant past, presidential candidates such as William Jennings Bryan and Thomas Dewey remained potent political players for years after their losses.

In contemporary times, however, few former nominees play a prominent role in the policymaking arena. Many enter an elder-statesman realm dominated by golf, corporate boards and charitable fundraising. Perhaps they're brought out for appearances at national party conventions; perhaps not.

Republican Mitt Romney has barely been heard from in recent months, failing to attend Obama's second inauguration. Democrat Al Gore went into virtual seclusion following his narrow loss in 2000, before re-emerging as a leading voice on climate change.

Democrats Adlai Stevenson and Walter Mondale went on to serve eventually as ambassadors, while George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey returned to the Senate.

But none of them had the kind of continuing influence that McCain is enjoying right now.

"John Kerry, I wouldn't say he played anything like a maverick role, but he became a leader on foreign relations, and of course that has translated into the secretary of state position," Edwards says.

A Willingness To Compromise

Several factors have to line up for a former presidential nominee to remain relevant, says Joel Goldstein, a law professor at Saint Louis University and an expert on the vice presidency.

The defeated candidate has to remain in a position to contribute something. That wasn't the case, for instance, with longtime Senate GOP leader Bob Dole, who resigned his seat in 1996 during the presidential campaign so that he would have "nowhere to go, but the White House or home."

Secondly, the candidate can't lose so badly that he's considered "radioactive" by his own party, Goldstein says, as Democrats McGovern, Mondale and Michael Dukakis were.

And the last part may be the trickiest: There has to be some bipartisan business that can get done with the former hopeful's help.

"You'd have to have a willingness on both sides to get past the campaign and move forward," Goldstein says.

Back In The Game

In McCain's case, that took a while. He was routinely described as "bitter" following his 2008 loss to Obama. Worried as he was about a primary challenger in his 2010 Senate race, McCain's politics took a turn to the right during Obama's early tenure.

The New York Times lambasted him then as an unprincipled demagogue.

But McCain, who has generally voted a conservative line throughout his career, has for a long time styled himself as a "maverick" willing to buck his own party on issues such as campaign finance and torture.

That's the stance to which he has returned, taking advantage of the opening in the present political environment to make headway by being willing to engage in bipartisan compromise.

"There are a fair number of Republican senators who think that their party has effectively adopted a strategy that will be disastrous for the country and for them as a party," says Mann, the Brookings scholar, who has been critical of the congressional GOP.

Not All Rave Reviews

McCain is now back to winning plaudits from predictable quarters, with articles fashioning him as "Obama's new best friend" and Senate Majority Leader "Harry Reid's favorite Republican" — reminders of a time when McCain used to refer to the national media as "my base."

But his willingness to condemn no-compromise conservatives such as Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas while praising his negotiating partner Chuck Schumer of New York, a leading Democratic strategist, has angered many on the right.

Some thought he showed his true stripes last week, when he won applause by showing up accidentally at a meeting Obama was holding with Senate Democrats. ("To be clear: I opened the wrong door, looked in and saw the President, said 'my mistake' and everybody laughed. Lighten up everybody..." McCain tweeted.)

The conservative journal National Review framed it this way: "Many House Republicans view McCain as the most lethal threat to a significant victory on spending cuts in the budget battles this fall."

It's not likely that McCain, who turns 77 this month and might be serving his last term, cares very much. He's still a harsh critic of Obama's foreign policy, particularly in regards to Syria, but he recognizes that his erstwhile opponent is someone he has to work with if he wants to get anything done.

McCain's "job satisfaction" is the highest it's ever been, according to his friend Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina.

"He wanted to be president, but it didn't work out," Graham told Reuters. "It takes a while to get over it. Right now, John realizes that the country is in trouble and he believes he can help."

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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