For old McCain allies, it was an all-too familiar scenario: their champion pulled back into the fray by his friend Graham, a likable but impulsive figure caught up in his own political battles with the right in South Carolina. By reversing himself, McCain effectively sacrificed his own credibility to buy Graham more time to continue his campaign against Hagel — an issue that plays to Graham’s advantage as he prepares to run for reelection in 2014.

“This is just a bone thrown to Lindsey Graham, who keeps painting himself into corners and then pleading with friends to crawl in there with him in a vain attempt to save a little face,” one Republican insider told POLITICO. And making it more poignant and personal in this case: the Graham friendship dominated at the expense of McCain’s earlier one with Hagel.