Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain got off to an awkward start in 2006, when McCain believed that Obama had broken a promise to work with him on ethics reform. The tensions escalated in 2008 during the pair’s presidential face-off, and relations stayed frosty through McCain’s 2010 reelection campaign and his party’s marked swerve to the right.
But then Obama was reelected, and the landscape for both men shifted. Now, after years at cross-purposes, they both have history on their minds. Obama, with big plans on immigration, guns, universal pre-K, trade deals, tax reform, entitlements, and the implementation of his health care law, is eyeing his legacy. McCain, who is 76 and may or may not run for reelection in 2016, says repeatedly these days that he wants to get things done and has reverted to his role as a bipartisan deal-maker.
McCain has his own To Do list, and it’s not identical to Obama’s (heightened involvement in Syria, anyone?). But already, several major areas of overlap have emerged, on immigration, guns, tax reform, and entitlements. Climate change, once one of McCain’s legislative passions, could also resurface as a mutual interest. So while there’s certainly no Obama-McCain bromance, there is a functional relationship that gets both men closer to their policy goals.
During the 2008 campaign, McCain seemed dismissive of Obama (thought bubble: How could anyone pick this hypocritical newcomer, who hasn’t paid his dues, over a veteran senator, military expert, and former prisoner of war?). And McCain is still plenty pugnacious when it comes to national security. Along with his sidekick, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, he greeted the nomination of his old friend Chuck Hagel as Defense secretary with open hostility; helped sink any chance Susan Rice had to become secretary of State; and pressed the administration relentlessly over its handling of the tragedy in Benghazi, Libya.
Not surprisingly, tensions sometimes flare over episodes like these, and there’s some frustration over what the White House views as McCain’s unpredictability. But there has always been potential for a strong Obama-McCain relationship, a former White House aide said, because Obama respects McCain’s moral compass and willingness to buck his party.
The frustration goes both ways. Obama angered McCain when he broke his pledge to accept public financing in 2008. He earned McCain’s further disapproval by transforming his 2012 campaign apparatus into Organizing for Action, a political group that raises unlimited money from individuals. And while White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said at a recent National Journal event that Obama “tried so mightily in his first term to get engagement on immigration,” McCain says he was unable to get Obama interested in the subject.
McCain and the administration agree that the 2012 election was a line of demarcation. Jarrett says Republicans are now more willing to talk. And McCain is enjoying a new freedom after years of striving to please various GOP factions. He made a hard right turn in his 2010 primary against former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, a tea-party conservative, and won reelection. He then kept his independent instincts in check to preserve his chances of becoming chairman of the Armed Services Committee in a GOP Senate.
But Democrats held their Senate majority last year, and Obama held the White House. That was McCain’s cue, as one friend put it, to stop looking over his shoulder and worrying about whether he was offending any fellow Republicans. “He loves accomplishing things. He’s feeling unconstrained about stepping up and doing them,” the friend said. McCain also loves the limelight, and he’s back in it with a vengeance—central to nearly every debate, and on TV almost every day.
In part, McCain’s return to form is a response to political realities. He won’t face voters for years (if ever), Obama will be in office for the rest of McCain’s Senate term, and Republicans got slammed at the polls last fall. More than many in his party, perhaps because of his experience as a presidential nominee, McCain’s public remarks suggest he has absorbed the implications of the lopsided Hispanic vote; his party’s basement-level approval ratings; the gulf between the GOP and the public on issues such as guns, immigration, and economic policy; and the need for Republicans to start addressing problems people care about.
Thus, barely three years after he ran a bare-knuckle primary campaign epitomized by his “Complete the danged fence” TV ad, McCain not only was instrumental in working out a bipartisan immigration compromise, he also went to the White House this week with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to brief Obama on the bill. He helped arrange Obama’s outreach dinner with GOP senators and, when the president’s budget came out, he rejected GOP skepticism about its proposals to curb Medicare and Social Security costs. “Maybe the president is on track to try to begin negotiations over a grand bargain,” he said on Fox News. McCain also discouraged talk of a filibuster on guns. He was one of only four Republicans voting this week for a background-check expansion that failed to pass.
At one point this month, McCain defended Obama on two fronts on one day. "I can certainly understand ... why the president got somewhat emotional," he said on CNN after Obama delivered a scathing speech on the failed Senate gun vote. And in a talk with reporters about the isolationist tendencies of some conservatives, he said that "there are times these days when I feel that I have more in common on foreign policy with President Obama than I do with some in my party."
Not surprisingly, McCain has lately been on the receiving end of much Democratic praise. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid singled him out for putting the brakes on a GOP drive to block the gun votes. In January, Schumer—the lead Democrat in the “Gang of Eight” immigration talks—called McCain “the glue in our group. His wisdom, his strength, his courage, his steadfastness … have really been inspiring.”
McCain, a big smile on his face, laughed as Schumer joked about whether McCain would like him to continue in that vein. Nearly 14 years after his first, deliriously impromptu presidential campaign, McCain finds himself in another political moment that suits his personality and policy inclinations. And if his labors end up as part of Obama’s legacy as well as his own, so be it.