McCain fills vacuum of power, leads the Republicans
With Republicans just beginning to regroup after the thumping they took in the 2008 elections, an unexpected figure has stepped from the shadows to lead the party out of the wilderness — Sen. John McCain.
Although just three months ago, 70 million Americans voted for the Democrat — including millions of Republicans — the 72-year-old Arizona senator has stepped into a leadership vacuum in his party, taking aim at the popular president by hammering him on everything from excessive federal spending to the war in Afghanistan.
“You have McCain being McCain,” said for mer House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The prominent conservative leader said that having the self-described maverick step forward early in the Obama administration was “absolutely” crucial during the debate of the $787 billion Obama stimulus bill.
The straight-talking McCain appears ready to battle his for- mer foe, eschewing conciliation as he takes his stand on principle. While some in the Senate sought compromise over the stimulus package, Mr. McCain refused to join a small group of moderates from both parties. Instead, he took to the Senate floor and berated the Democratic plan, pushing a Republican proposal that called for more tax cuts and less government spending than President Obama demanded.
“I think it would be much harder to organize the opposition if in fact McCain were just consistently siding with Obama. I think, in that sense, it liberated Republicans to look at the principles rather than the pleasantness — and the principles were pretty one-sided.”
The failed presidential candidate will likely not hold the top perch for long. He has already ruled out a repeat run in 2012 and has often made clear that he expects other Republicans to step up soon to be standard bearers for the party.
Still, the senator, with nothing left to lose, is particularly well- placed to criticize Mr. Obama for his abandonment of bipartisan efforts — a pledge the Democrat repeatedly made during his campaign against Mr. McCain. Despite Mr. Obama’s attempt to sooth sore feelings by throwing a pre-inauguration celebration “dinner” honoring Mr. McCain, the senator is making clear he will continue to voice his objections loudly.
“It was very significant that he was prepared to look past the nice dinner party that was held in his honor and look past all the nice words and recognize the level of bipartisan words — this was a very left-wing bill,” Mr. Gingrich said.
The veteran senator, who first won a seat in Congress 27 years ago, when President Obama was still studying political science at Columbia University, has picked up just where he left off before his run for the presidency. Long a critic of pork-barrel spending, the stimulus package put forward by Mr. Obama was a tailormade issue for the Arizona senator to attack.
Unlike Sen. John Kerry, who immediately faded into the background after he lost his bid against George W. Bush in 2000, Mr. McCain has taken on a heavy load since his loss. The senator, who defied political risk when building the bipartisan Gang of 14 in 2005 to ensure minority Democrats were not left out of the debate, ripped his former presidential opponent for breaking his pledge to move past partisanship and work closely with Republicans, despite differences on policy.
“It was a bad beginning because it wasn’t what we promised the American people, what President Obama promised the American people, that we would sit down together,” Mr. McCain said Feb. 15 on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “Look, I appreciate the fact that the president came over and talked to Republicans. That’s not how you negotiate a result. You sit down together in a room with competing proposals. Almost all of our proposals went down on a party line vote.”
Mr. McCain also said that “candidate Obama said that these conferences would be open to the public. He said that the American people would have five days to view [the bill] on the Internet. There was commitments made that are certainly not being kept now.”
What’s more, Mr. McCain, the most ardent advocate of the 2007 “surge” of combat troops to Iraq, has taken the leading role in criticizing Mr. Obama on the war in Afghanistan. After the president last week announced adding 17,000 troops there, the Senate’s top national security exper t urged him to do more.
“More troops alone . . . will not lead to success there,” said Mr. McCain, who called on Obama to “spell out for the American people what he believes victory in Afghanistan will look like and articulate a coherent strategy for achieving it.”
“There still exists no integrated civil-military plan for this war — more than seven years after we began military operations. Such a strategy should spell out the way forward, including the additional resource requirements for its execution,” the senator said Feb. 17.