Just something I’ve been thinking about, knowing full well that no one on either side of the great Trump divide much cares about who ol’ Maverick’s backing. What intrigues me about McCain is that, if there’s any big-name Republican in America with both the motive and opportunity to withhold his endorsement, it’s him — and yet he’s aboard the Trump train this year, however reluctantly. In the case of a young legislator like Marco Rubio, the argument for holding your nose and supporting Trump is straightforward. Rubio will run for office again someday and, when he does, he doesn’t need any headaches about not having been a good soldier for his party. The ambitious careerist thing to do right now is swallow his pride, support Trump whenever he’s asked about it, and then remind populist Rubio skeptics in his next election that if he could vote for a “con artist” in the name of party unity this year, they can vote for him.
McCain isn’t a young legislator. He’ll turn 80 in August. He was the butt of one of Trump’s most vicious attacks of the primaries, when Trump was asked about McCain’s war heroism last summer and told an audience, “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” Knowing McCain’s notorious temper and his lifelong advocacy for veterans, you can imagine the sort of rage that must have brought out of him privately. But that’s small potatoes compared to his differences with Trump on foreign policy. He and his pal Lindsey Graham are the two most insistent interventionists in the party; Trump is the most isolationist nominee the GOP’s had in decades. McCain is a NATO booster and a relentless critic of Russia. Trump is a NATO skeptic and he and Putin can’t stop saying nice things about each other. McCain and Graham are, of course, two of the party’s foremost amnesty shills, who’ve been preaching for years that the GOP had better get right with Latinos or they’re doomed electorally. Trump has spent the campaign talking about mass deportation, a coast-to-coast border wall, and the threat from “Mexican rapists.” As a matter of bedrock principle, McCain’s credo has always been duty, honor, country. Trump’s credo is … not that. Graham detests Trump so thoroughly that he leaped to endorse Ted Cruz once the field had narrowed even though he had joked in January that the choice between Cruz and Trump was like choosing to be either shot or poisoned. Once Cruz dropped out, Graham declared that he’ll stay home in November rather than vote for Trump. It’s not overstating it, I think, to say that Trump’s success is about as comprehensive a repudiation of McCainism as the GOP was capable of. It makes perfect sense that Graham is emphatically #NeverTrump. It makes zero sense that McCain himself is not.
Except for one thing, of course. McCain’s running for reelection this year. If he refuses to support Trump, Trumpists in Arizona might split their ballot in November. That’s the only reason I can think of to explain why a man who’s been known for years as “Maverick” would fall meekly in line behind Trump while his BFF Lindsey walks away. Even on the cusp of turning 80, having served 30 years in the Senate as of this coming January, the thought of losing his seat is less tolerable to McCain than the thought of endorsing Donald farking Trump is. Why? Why not seize this opportunity to retire and walk away from the new Trumpist GOP with some dignity intact? Maybe it’s a matter of timing: McCain might have believed, as 95 percent of the chatterati (me included) did, that Trump could never actually win the nomination. The worst-case scenario he faced, or so he probably thought, was lining up behind “wacko bird” Ted Cruz. Instead he got stuck with Trump. If he walks away now and forfeits the GOP’s advantage of incumbency, his seat is almost a cinch to turn blue. He barely leads Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick in head-to-head polling as it is; if Trump takes the sort of beating this fall that many national polls predict, McCain might be washed away but any other Republican in Arizona certainly would be. That’s the only way, I think, to frame his endorsement as a matter of “duty.” He’s doing a duty to his party by hanging in there.
Imagine, though, if McCain had decided last year — as any American in nearly any other profession would have — that after 30 years of service, with an 80th birthday approaching, retirement was finally in the cards. He could have announced he was leaving in 2017, then helped recruit a strong candidate to succeed him. You’d still have the incumbency problem but his replacement as Senate nominee would have had time to introduce himself and build up a following. And ol’ Mav could have left speaking his mind, without endorsing a guy for cynical reasons who opposes pretty much everything he stands for. As one Twitter pal put it, “I like people who weren’t captured by Trump.”