McCain’s Balancing Act

mccainlecturn McCains Balancing ActThese days, there are three John McCains.

One is the pride-driven defeated presidential candidate who hopes Americans will compare him to President Obama and realize the error of their ways. Another is a true-believer neoconservative, dedicated to using his Senate perch to push for aggressive military efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. And then there’s the third, an unexpectedly vulnerable incumbent senator who could face a career-threatening Republican primary challenge next year.

All three McCains were on display during his appearance on Sunday’s “Meet the Press.”

Ostensibly, McCain was invited to be on an edition of the show focused exclusively on the Afghanistan game-plan Obama unveiled this week. But host David Gregory’s questions weren’t limited to foreign policy – and McCain’s answers reflected his need to juggle multiple political imperatives.

Consider Gregory’s first question, about McCain’s overall assessment of Obama’s plan to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.

Other national Republicans have dodged praising Obama’s strategy, but McCain led off by declaring, “I support the president’s decision. I think it’s the right decision. I think it can lead to success” – a basic formulation he returned to several times during the interview. He also lauded Obama for delivering “a very effective speech” at West Point last week.

McCain was speaking as a Neocon true-believer. For months, he’s loudly agitated for the White House to grant Stanley McChrystal’s request for 40,000 additional troops. He’s done this because, as with the 2007 troop surge in Iraq, he genuinely believes that the “war on terror” can be won through massive overseas military deployments and nation-building. Obama didn’t give McChrystal and McCain all they wanted, but he gave them much of it.

But his praise was hardly unconditional. On Obama’s plan to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011, McCain asked, “Do you break the enemy’s will by saying, ‘We’re going to be there,’ or send a message that we’re going to be there for a year-and-a-half or so and then we’re going to begin to leave, no matter what the circumstances are?”

He also criticized Obama’s lengthy decision-making process, arguing that it “made our allies very uneasy as to what we were going to do.  And it wasn’t just the length of time; the leak of secret cables from our ambassador in Kabul saying we shouldn’t send reinforcements, that leads to a certain turmoil.”

With these critiques, McCain assumed the role of armchair commander in chief – a man who prides himself on (what he sees as) his unusual foreign policy wisdom and who would clearly like Americans to conclude that a President McCain would have handled Afghanistan (and all foreign policy matters) better than President Obama.

Toward the end of the segment, Gregory quizzed McCain on domestic issues. Asked if the this year’s stimulus package is working (unemployment actually fell last month), McCain replied, “Of course not” and branded it “an act of generational theft.” He also took shots at Obama’s healthcare effort (this after offering an amendment in the Senate that would have voided Medicare cuts championed by Obama and the Democrats), said that any new jobs bill should be focused on tax cuts, and defended Sarah Palin.

His defense of Palin, obviously, has much to do with legacy protection; he’d be indicting his own judgment if he ever took a shot at her. But McCain is also facing the serious threat of a primary challenge next year. A poll two weeks ago showed him in a statistical dead heat with J.D. Hayworth, the former six-term congressman who lost his seat in the 2006 Democratic tide.

Standing up for Palin certainly won’t hurt McCain with the conservative voters who will hold sway in any McCain-Hayworth showdown. Nor will denouncing Obama’s domestic agenda.

But historically, defeated presidential nominees like McCain have struggled in subsequent campaigns.

George McGovern, for instance, nearly lost his South Dakota Senate seat two years after his 1972 presidential defeat; only the anti-Republican Watergate tide saved him against Leo Thorsness. And six years later, he was soundly beaten by James Abdnor. Walter Mondale was dissuaded from running for the Senate from Minnesota in 1990, in part out of fear that his 49-state loss to Ronald Reagan in 1984 had reduced his standing. And when he did jump back into politics in 2002, as the last-minute replacement for the late Paul Wellstone, Mondale was beaten.  Michael Dukakis has had trouble. His popularity in Massachusetts tanked after his 1988 White House bid so much that he was forced to swear off running for re-election in 1990 – and so profoundly that two decades later his hopes of winning an interim appointment to the U.S. Senate after Ted Kennedy’s death were scotched by Governor Deval Patrick, who was unwilling to closely identify himself with Dukakis.

Favorite-son candidates almost always win their states decisively in presidential elections. But their status as national celebrities can end up breeding fatigue and resentment among home-state voters when the election is over. Criticizing Obama and sounding tough on foreign policy won’t hurt McCain’s chances in ’10, but it won’t change the fact that he’s no longer Arizona’s rising star.