Sen. John McCain (R)
Elected: 1986, term expires 2010, 4th term.
Born: Aug. 29, 1936, Panama Canal Zone .
Education: U.S. Naval Academy, B.S. 1958, Natl. War Col., 1973-74.
Family: Married (Cindy); 7 children.
Military career: Navy, 1958–80 (Vietnam).
Elected office: U.S. House of Reps., 1982–86.
Professional Career: Dir., Navy Senate Liaison Ofc., 1977–81.
John McCain, Arizona’s senior senator, is the 26th person to be nominated for the presidency by the Republican Party. McCain was born in the Canal Zone, the son and grandson of Navy admirals. (His married-to-the-military mother, Roberta McCain, at age 96, was one of his hardest-working campaign supporters; she danced at the podium at the Republican National Convention celebrating his nomination.) McCain graduated from the Naval Academy, fifth from the bottom of his class academically but high in demerits, and trained to be a fighter pilot. He volunteered for service in Vietnam, and flew ground-attack aircraft from carriers at sea. In July 1967, he was severely injured in a flight-deck explosion on the carrier USS Forrestal. McCain could have returned home, but refused. He continued to fly bombing runs over North Vietnam. That October, on his 23rd bombing mission, his A-4E Skyhawk was shot down by a missile, and McCain ejected from the plane, breaking both of his arms and a leg in a fall into Truc Back Lake near Hanoi. After pulling him from the water, his North Vietnamese “rescuers” crushed one of his shoulders with a rifle butt, bayoneted him, and then refused McCain medical treatment during his stay at a prison dubbed by U.S. soldiers the Hanoi Hilton. He spent the next five and a half years in prisoner-of-war camps, most of it in suffering as a result of repeated torture by his Communist captors. He spent two of those years in solitary confinement. That chapter of McCain’s life is recounted in Robert Timberg’s The Nightingale’s Song, and in McCain’s 1999 best-seller Faith of My Fathers. When he was offered release because of his father’s rank, he refused to be let out ahead of those who had been imprisoned longer, and he returned to the United States only in March 1973 with other POWs.
|John McCain (R)||1,505,372||(77%)||($2,140,807)|
|Stuart Starky (D)||404,507||(21%)||($12,716)|
|John McCain (R)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 1998 (69%), 1992 (56%), 1986 (60%), 1984 House (78%), 1982 House (66%)
McCain recovered in military hospitals, and despite intensive physical therapy, suffered permanent injuries, including restricted movement of his arms. On top of the many medals and commendations he received, his heroism was rewarded with a final assignment in a high-profile, noncombat role as the Navy’s liaison to the Senate in 1977. McCain says the job launched his career in politics. He became close to several senators, including Republicans John Tower of Texas and William Cohen of Maine and Democrat Gary Hart of Colorado. On the personal front, McCain’s first marriage failed. In 1980, he was remarried, to Cindy Lou Hensley, the wealthy daughter of a beer distributor from Phoenix. Two years later, he ran for an open House seat in Arizona. Attacked as an outsider, he responded, “The longest place I ever lived in was Hanoi.” He won a four-way primary 32%-26%, and then the general election in November. In 1986, he easily defeated former Arizona state legislator Democrat Richard Kimball to win the Senate seat of conservative icon Barry Goldwater, who was retiring.
In Congress, McCain established a conservative voting record and, at first, a low profile. He was a strong supporter of the Reagan administration, and surprised some by opposing the president’s dispatch of troops to Lebanon in 1982, arguing they were too few to be effective and too vulnerable to attack. Later, he backed President George H.W. Bush’s war in the Persian Gulf in 1990, and his decision not to oust Iraqi Leader Saddam Hussein. In the 1990s, he worked with Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, a Democrat and also a decorated Vietnam veteran, to end the trade embargo on Vietnam, and pressed for establishing diplomatic relations. He supported air strikes in Kosovo in 1999, but criticized the Clinton administration for ruling out ground troops in Bosnia and for not using “all necessary force” in Kosovo.
McCain strongly supported President Bush in the war on terrorism after September 11, and in his later decision to go to war with Iraq. McCain repeatedly pushed for more ground troops in Afghanistan and signed a letter urging that Iraq be the next target. He called for a special commission to investigate intelligence failures before the terrorist attacks. The final version of the law provided, at the insistence of relatives of 9/11 casualties, that McCain and Richard Shelby of Alabama get a veto over appointees to the commission. When Bush decided to invade Iraq in 2003, McCain continually pushed for a larger army and more troops to get the job done. He clashed frequently with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
McCain finally concluded that the administration’s handling of the war “will go down as one of the worst” mistakes in U.S. military history. He dismissed the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group in December 2006 and called for the surge of troops that Bush ordered in January 2007. To those who said the troops were already overextended, he replied, “There’s only one thing worse than an overstressed Army and Marine Corps, and that’s a defeated Army and Marine Corps.” He strongly opposed Democratic calls for a troop withdrawal. When critics speculated that his support for the war would hurt his chances to become president, McCain said, “I would much rather lose an election than lose a war.”
McCain’s other locus of legislative activity has been the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which handles heavily lobbied regulatory issues and sets policy for just about every major industry in the nation. He tended to support deregulation, but he took little part in shaping the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and voted against it, arguing that it did not effectively ensure competition. As chairman of the committee from 2003 to 2005, he showed distaste for the political logrolling common on Capitol Hill, perhaps because his willingness to engage in business as usual once nearly ended McCain’s career.
In the mid-1980s, McCain was one of the Keating Five senators investigated for allegedly pressuring regulators on behalf of Charles Keating’s Arizona savings and loan. Ultimately, he was cited for exercising bad judgment for attempting to influence regulators overseeing Keating’s thrift. Vindicated by his re-election in 1992, McCain launched himself as a reformer. When Republicans won control of Congress two years later, McCain sought out Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who had a bill to clamp down on campaign finance abuses. For the next several years, the McCain-Feingold bills went through several transformations. Key features included prohibitions on soft money—the large, unregulated contributions to political parties that were ripe for abuse—and limits on issue advertising by independent organizations within 60 days of an election. The changes were fiercely opposed as an infringement on free speech and as a threat to the Republican Party by the powerful Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who used threats of filibusters to prevent the bill from coming to a vote.
In early 2001, McCain threatened to tie up the Senate unless Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., set aside time for debate on the issue. In March 2001, after two weeks of civilized but spirited debate, during which McCain and Feingold fended off several poison-pill amendments, the legislation passed April 2 by a 59-41 vote. An amendment by Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was passed to raise limits on individual contributions from $1,000 to $2,000, but the bill retained the soft-money ban and the limit on issue ads prior to the election, which some senators felt would be struck down by the courts as an unconstitutional ban of free speech. The House passed its version of the bill in February 2002, and the bill became law in March 2002. Most of it has since been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
McCain seems to believe that elected officials should act, like military officers, out of a sense of honor and duty, without regard for how it affects their electoral prospects or the interests of their constituents. Another of his legislative crusades has been his war on earmarks, the practice among lawmakers of slipping special, often high-dollar projects into spending bills to benefit a particular congressional district or state. In 2001, McCain was the only Republican to vote against a water projects bill, charging that it contained $1.2 billion in wasteful earmarks. Each year, McCain highlighted the pork-barrel spending he found in the appropriations bills, to the growing irritation of his colleagues in both parties, who were accustomed to using earmarks to score points with constituents at election time. But eventually McCain’s lonely campaign was joined by conservatives in the House, and the issue was a factor in the 2006 and 2008 elections.
McCain’s generally conservative voting record has as many quirks as the man himself. He supported funding of embryonic-stem-cell research, in opposition to most other Republicans. With liberal Democrat Kerry, he proposed fuel-efficiency standards of 36 miles per gallon for cars and light trucks by 2015. And with independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, he co-authored a bill to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. McCain opposed the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage as “antithetical in every way to the core philosophy of Republicans. It usurps from the states a fundamental authority they have always possessed and imposes a federal remedy for a problem that most states believe does not confront them.”
His biggest act of ideological heresy in recent years came on the issue of immigration. “The truth is, border enforcement alone does not work,” McCain said, as most conservatives were pursuing tougher enforcement strategies. McCain sponsored a guest-worker law, which would provide six-year temporary-worker visas and three-year visas for those who are here illegally now. He also co-sponsored with fellow Arizona Republican Jon Kyl a bill to fund border-security measures. He opposed Arizona’s Proposition 200, which would cut off public benefits to illegal immigrants, arguing that it would “delay, possibly derail, the search for a solution.” In 2005, McCain and liberal Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts sponsored an immigration bill that gave illegals a path to legalization, allowing them to obtain two three-year visas and then “get in the back of the line” of legal immigrants. “Some Americans believe we must find all these millions, round them up, and send them back to the countries they came from. I don’t know how you do that. And I don’t know why you would want to,” McCain said. But a comprehensive bill failed in 2006 and again in June 2007.
McCain’s quest for the presidency began with the 2000 election. In 1999, he decided to skip the caucuses in dovish and ethanol-enthusiastic Iowa (McCain had long denounced ethanol subsidies as pork-barrel spending) to concentrate on New Hampshire, where he traveled around in his “Straight Talk Express” bus. At first, only a few reporters traveled with him and crowds were sparse. But McCain was striking a chord. To increasingly larger and more enthusiastic crowds, he told his personal story in self-deprecating terms, and pledged, “I will never tell you a lie.” He talked about defense and foreign-policy issues—the only candidate to spend much time doing so—and invariably called for campaign finance regulation. On the campaign bus, McCain was always available to answer reporters’ questions and banter with the press while making fun of his aides. McCain did not have much support from his colleagues. Only four fellow senators endorsed him. Back home, Republican Gov. Jane Hull, who had had her fill of McCain’s sometimes abrasive treatment, endorsed Texas Gov. George W. Bush, and the Arizona Republic wrote editorials warning of McCain’s “volcanic” temper. But the strength of feeling among his ever-larger crowds was real, and on Feb. 1, McCain beat Bush by an impressive 49%-31%. Suddenly he became, if not the front-runner, at least the front-runner’s most serious opponent.
From there, the “Straight Talk Express” had mixed success. It went to South Carolina, where both the Republican establishment and Christian conservatives lined up with Bush. The campaigning got negative, but what hurt even more was McCain’s failure to win over self-identified Republicans. His emphasis on campaign finance regulation and his criticisms of Bush’s tax plan for giving too much to the rich helped with independents, but sounded like enemy talk to Republicans. On Feb. 18, Bush won 53%-42% in South Carolina, in what turned out to be a decisive victory. The race continued, with McCain running about even with Bush among self-identified Republicans, way ahead among self-identified independents, but way behind among Republicans in Southern states. McCain’s most striking win was in Michigan that February, where he prevailed 50%-43%, among an atypical electorate: 17% of Republican primary voters were self-identified Democrats, 35% were independents, and only a minority were Republicans.
McCain might have done better had he emphasized other issues on which he had consistently taken stands in line with most Republicans’ thinking, such as national defense, tax cuts (he had a tax-cut plan himself, but he spent less time on it than on attacking Bush’s), abortion rights, and Social Security individual investment accounts. Instead, after South Carolina, he gave a speech in Virginia Beach attacking the religious right, and in an offhand comment on the bus, called Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell “forces of evil.” McCain lost in Virginia and Washington on February 29. On Super Tuesday, March 7, McCain won in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont. But he lost decisively in New York, Ohio, and California. He suspended his campaign in March, and two months later, grudgingly endorsed Bush.
Four years later, as Bush headed into his 2004 re-election campaign, McCain was a major national figure, with high positives among Republicans and very low negatives among Democrats. Always enchanted with him, the press gave McCain plenteous coverage. As Kerry, his fellow Vietnam veteran, clinched the Democratic nomination in March 2004, there was speculation that he would ask McCain to be his vice presidential nominee. Polls showed Kerry-McCain running far ahead of Bush-Cheney. After some days of speculation and some talks with Kerry, McCain firmly rejected the idea. “I am a pro-life, deficit-hawk, free-trade Republican,” he said. Subsequently, the Bush and McCain camps made peace. In June 2004, McCain appeared with Bush at a campaign stop in Nevada and strongly endorsed him.
When the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads appeared against Kerry, McCain called them “dishonorable” and said they should be dropped from the air. When Bush declined to join that demand, he didn’t press the issue further, and said that he had advised Kerry against mentioning the war, as he had done in his 2000 campaign, and to let others do it. In August, he asked Kerry to stop running an ad showing him criticizing Bush in 2000, and Kerry did. At the Republican National Convention, McCain delivered another eloquent speech unequivocally endorsing Bush. “He has been tested and has risen to the most important challenge of our time, and I salute him,” McCain said.
In the 2006 election season, McCain traveled around the country to support Republican candidates, raising more than $10 million for them. In May 2006, he delivered identical commencement speeches at Liberty University, where he was welcomed by Falwell, and The New School, where he was welcomed by former Democratic colleague Bob Kerrey of Nebraska. His long derision of pork-barrel spending by then had become a national issue. McCain voiced more frequently and fervently his long-standing opposition to abortion rights. Even so, many conservatives were not enthusiastic about McCain, given his stands on campaign finance, immigration, and carbon dioxide emissions.
The skepticism among the conservative GOP base doomed McCain’s early strategy in 2007, which was to campaign as the next-in-line Republican for the presidential nomination in 2008. By early 2007, he was behind New York’s Rudolph Giuliani in the polls, and he fell far short of his fundraising goals, raising just $13.6 million in the first quarter of 2007, behind Giuliani and Massachusetts’ Mitt Romney. By late June, the McCain campaign was broke. Its opulent headquarters was closed, and the campaign’s top managers were fired, replaced with McCain stalwart Rick Davis and Bush-Cheney veteran Steve Schmidt. Backed into a corner, McCain adopted the campaign strategy that some of the best consultants rely on—campaign on what you believe in. And, he had a backup strategy that even the worst consultants are ashamed to advance—wait for all the other candidates’ strategies to fail.
They both worked. After a spring trip to Iraq, McCain commented in July 2007 that he was convinced the troop surge strategy was working and praised the outcome despite near-universal skepticism in the press. In September, he launched his “No Surrender” tour. In the GOP primary debates, McCain was treated respectfully and uncritically by his opponents, while he was quick to jab at any who expressed skepticism about the surge. Meanwhile, his opponents’ strategies started to fail. Romney’s poll numbers were stalled at about 30%. Tennessee’s Fred Thompson took months to announce he was running, then seemed strangely unenergetic. Judging that the field was stacked against him in early contests, New York’s Rudy Giuliani decided to wait until the Florida primary. Only Mike Huckabee, the former minister and Arkansas governor, exceeded expectations, running second in the Iowa straw poll in August 2007 and first, ahead of the free-spending Romney, in the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, 2008.
As in 2000, McCain had written off dovish Iowa. He focused on the New Hampshire primary, and campaigned hard in that state. On January 8, he beat Romney, who owned a vacation home in New Hampshire, 37%-32%. “Mac is back,” chanted the crowd on Election Night.
Next up was Michigan, where Romney had grown up and where his father was governor 40 years before. Romney promised to bring back jobs in the state’s important automobile industry, while McCain stated bluntly that many jobs would never return. With fewer crossovers than in 2000, Michigan gave Romney 39% and McCain 30%. From Michigan, it was on to South Carolina, where McCain had lost decisively in 2000. This was the one real four-way Republican contest in 2008. McCain, with 33%, came out ahead of Huckabee, with 30%. Thompson undoubtedly took votes away from fellow Southerner Huckabee and got 16%. Romney was fourth with 15%.
In critical and always baffling Florida on January 29, GOP Gov. Charlie Crist delivered a surprise endorsement of McCain. Meanwhile, support was draining from Giuliani, who was depending so heavily on the state. That was especially true among Miami’s Cuban-Americans, who were going to McCain. The result was a 36%-31% victory for McCain over Romney. A few days later on Super Tuesday, February 5, McCain effectively sewed up the nomination, winning absolute majorities (his first) in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut and winning a 1% victory over Huckabee in Missouri. He racked up victories in states as diverse as California, Illinois, Oklahoma, and Delaware. Two days later, Romney withdrew. Huckabee stayed in the race for another month.
The Republican Party’s winner-take-all delegate allocation rules allowed McCain to cinch the nomination with narrow pluralities—5% in New Hampshire, 3% in South Carolina, 5% in Florida, 1% in Missouri, and 7% in California. This gave Republicans a nominee out of sync with the party’s base supporters on some important issues. Yet, at the same time, he was admired by some hard-core conservatives for his support of the troop surge and for enduring his increasingly negative treatment by the national press. By late spring, McCain had consolidated the Republican base, but it was smaller than in 2004, and not sufficiently motivated to come anywhere close to matching the fundraising feats of Democrat Barack Obama. Working against McCain were Bush’s low job rating, an increasing Democratic advantage in party identification, doubts about the course of the economy, the continuing unpopularity of the war in Iraq, and the enthusiasm among young and black voters for Obama. Another factor was McCain’s own campaign finance law. Obama eschewed federal funding and was able to massively outspend McCain, who had little choice but to take public financing.
In these circumstances, what is perhaps surprising is that McCain made a contest of it and that he was actually leading during part of the fall campaign. He sought to portray himself, more than Obama, as an agent of change. After Obama chose 36-year Senate veteran Joe Biden of Delaware as his running mate, McCain chose the two-year governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin. Her initial appearance in Ohio and her speech before the Republican National Convention sparked huge enthusiasm among the Republican base and, for the first time, enabled the McCain campaign to muster volunteer and fundraising efforts competitive with Obama’s. Palin’s record of defeating powerful Republicans in Alaska underlined McCain’s message of change and reform, and polls after the convention showed a sharp narrowing of the race in states like Washington, Oregon, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. For about two weeks, the McCain-Palin ticket actually led Obama-Biden by narrow margins.
Whether this was a sustainable lead or just a temporary post-convention bounce cannot be conclusively established. On September 15, Lehman Brothers went into bankruptcy, and a financial crisis ensued. The same day, McCain said, “The fundamentals of our economy are strong.” Four days later, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke called for a $700 billion bailout of the financial markets. Obama overtook McCain and never relinquished his lead after that. On September 24, McCain announced he was suspending his campaign, pulling his television ads, and returning to the Capitol to work on the financial industry bill. He said he might not appear at the first presidential debate scheduled two days later. Obama coolly said that the president had to tend to more than one thing at a time, and the debate went off. When the House rejected the financial bailout on September 29, McCain was blamed for not bringing along a sufficient number of House Republicans. He received precious little credit when revised legislation passed the Senate on October 1 and the House on October 3.
In the rhetoric war, McCain attacked Obama sharply on taxes, energy, and other issues in October, but modulated his attacks on October 10, saying, “I want to be president of the United States and obviously I do not want Senator Obama to be, but I have to tell you, I have to tell you he is a decent person, and a person that you do not have to be scared of as president of the United States.” He criticized Obama for saying he wanted to “spread the wealth around,” but when asked in a debate about the economy, McCain fell back on his determination to stop spending on earmarks, which could hardly be viewed as a comprehensive economic agenda. McCain refused to allow his campaign to use as a campaign tactic Obama’s 20-year relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Chicago, who had made controversial, racially loaded remarks during the campaign.
In the final days of the campaign, Obama avoided mistakes. He won 53%-46%, the best Democratic percentage since 1964. Obama got 95% support from African-American voters, and he won 66%-32% among voters under age 30. Among those older than 30, McCain lost by only 50%-49%. On Election Night, McCain made a gracious concession speech, saying, “Senator Obama has achieved a great thing for himself and for his country.”
After the election, McCain continued to weigh in on major issues, even as the spotlight moved decisively to the new Obama administration. And he seemed unlikely to draw a serious primary challenge in 2010. General elections in 1992, 1998, and 2004 were no problem for him, but his 54%-45% presidential victory in Arizona in 2008, and his relatively low showing among the state’s growing number of Latinos (whom he lost 56%-41%), suggest that he might have more serious competition in 2010. The appointment of Gov. Janet Napolitano as secretary of Homeland Security, however, presumably removes the state’s most formidable Democrat from the race.