Lessons from the climate fight: McCain's a tool
One of the facts that bobs to the surface as you read Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker piece on the death of the climate bill is that John McCain is kind of a tool. I know he’s fallen pretty far from his beloved-by-the-media perch of the mid-2000s, but he could stand to fall a bit farther. (Yes, I realize I’m harping on this.)
Since most senators remain resolutely ignorant of the content of the climate bill, it’s optics that matter. Particularly early on, the climate bill could have used some credible Republican support. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tried, but he didn’t have the juice. McCain might have pulled it off. He had just enough left of his tattered reputation for independence. He could have been a statesman and helped implement policy he’d been claiming for 10 years is in the public interest. He even started down the path:
The Senate coalition that introduced the bill started to form in early 2009, when Lieberman instructed [his aide Danielle] Rosengarten to work with the office of John McCain, Lieberman’s longtime partner on the issue. …
By late January, 2009, the details of the Lieberman-McCain bill had been almost entirely worked out, and Lieberman began showing it to other Senate offices in anticipation of a February press conference. The goal was to be the centrist alternative to a separate effort, initiated by Barbara Boxer, a liberal from California and the chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee.
But something changed. Not anything about climate change or cap-and-trade, mind you. More this:
In Arizona, a right-wing radio host and former congressman, J. D. Hayworth, announced that he was considering challenging McCain in the primary.
McCain had never faced a serious primary opponent for his Senate seat, and now he was going to have to defend his position on global warming to hard-core conservative voters. The Republican Party had grown increasingly hostile to the science of global warming and to cap-and-trade, associating the latter with a tax on energy and more government regulation. Sponsoring the bill wasn’t going to help McCain defeat an opponent to his right.
He would do anything for climate change, but he won’t do that.
By the end of February, McCain was starting to back away from his commitment to Lieberman. At first, he insisted that he and Lieberman announce a set of climate-change “principles” instead of a bill. Then, three days before a scheduled press conference to announce those principles, the two senators had a heated conversation on the Senate floor. Lieberman turned and walked away. “That’s it,” he told an aide. “He can’t do it this year.”
That’s Lieberman’s thanks for campaigning for the guy.
After McCain turned tail, Graham stepped up to the plate, and whatever his motivations, it took some brass. He got what he wanted, namely media plaudits:
For years, Graham had lived in McCain’s shadow. But, as the rebellious politics of 2010 transformed McCain into a harsh partisan, Graham adopted McCain’s old identity as the Senate’s happy moderate. To Graham’s delight, on December 23rd Time posted an online article headlined “LINDSEY GRAHAM: NEW GOP MAVERICK IN THE SENATE.” The photograph showed Graham standing at a lectern with Lieberman and Kerry.
This is what Graham, who also campaigned relentlessly for McCain, got for his efforts:
A month after [Kerry-Graham-Lieberman] was formed, McCain told Politico, “Their start has been horrendous. Obviously, they’re going nowhere.” After the Time piece appeared, he was enraged. Graham told colleagues that McCain had called him and yelled at him, incensed that he was stealing the maverick mantle.
McCain wants to cut and run and be the mavericky center of attention. Hell hath no fury like a hypocrite scorned.
I realize the bill probably wouldn’t have passed regardless of what McCain did. He’s not the center of the story and his calumny was no worse than many others’. Nonetheless, he’s kind of a douchecanoe and it can’t hurt to say so.
Get Grist in your inbox