McCain issued a perfunctory denial this morning that his comments here were a swipe at Trump, but c’mon. For the second time in a week, he’s launched an attack without naming names in which it’s nonetheless perfectly clear whom he’s attacking.
Has he ever hit Trump squarely on the fact that he didn’t serve in Vietnam? Trump had five deferments, one medical — for bone spurs in his foot — and four for education but I can’t recall McCain ever making an issue of that, not even after Trump’s infamous crack about preferring soldiers who don’t get captured. McCain went on “Morning Joe” the day after that happened in 2015 and was all modesty. I’m not a hero, he insisted, I served with heroes and if Trump owes anyone an apology it’s them and their families. Even when invited to say something about Trump’s military record, McCain ducked:
“For me to look back in anger at anyone is nonproductive,” he said. “And our country was divided in an almost unprecedented fashion during the Vietnam War, and when I came home I was shocked. So I’ve worked ever since to try to heal those wounds.”
As Trump progressed from political novelty act to legit frontrunner to GOP nominee, the political incentive for McCain to hit him on his Vietnam record shrunk. Maverick had a potentially difficult primary in front of him in the person of Trump-esque Kelli Ward; taking on Trump would have galvanized populist support for her and would have irritated Republican leaders, who were desperate to unite the party against Clinton. Then when Trump pulled the upset in November, McCain still had no incentive to attack him. It would have been foolish for any senator with a policy agenda to needlessly alienate a new president, especially one from his own party.
But circumstances have changed. McCain’s safely past his own reelection and almost certainly serving his last term in the Senate. He’s had a terrible medical diagnosis and is clearly eyeing his political legacy. To the extent that he was prepared to give Trump any benefit of the doubt when he first took office that he’d be a better president than he was a candidate, that benefit now seems to be gone. He torpedoed “skinny repeal” in the Senate a few months ago, then torpedoed Graham-Cassidy by declaring he wouldn’t vote for that either, and lately has taken to delivering speeches about “spurious nationalism.” Now here he is barely avoiding calling Trump a draft dodger. If anything, the fact that he avoids it at all is the surprising part of the clip. Why’s he still pulling his punches? He has nothing to lose by getting nasty.
Trump has a knack for winning his political skirmishes (to the extent that anyone with a 40 percent approval rating can be said to be “winning”) but I don’t know how he’d win if McCain went hard at him over their Vietnam records. Sure, Republican populists would howl that McCain’s an amnesty shill and a RINO, but to most of the country McCain’s war service is the most impressive thing about him. Remember, as the son of an admiral, he was offered early release by the Vietnamese. He declined, feeling it would have been unfair to the other POWs. He was a child of privilege in his own way and refused to use that privilege to escape immense physical and psychological suffering. Having him attack Trump’s war record would be a double whammy for POTUS: It would set up a contrast between Trump’s brand of alpha-male bravado and that of McCain, a veteran who can walk the walk on being a tough guy, and it would invite an overreaction from Trump himself or more excitable populists, who sometimes like to accuse McCain of treason for having signed a confession for the Vietnamese under duress. Actually, it’d be a triple whammy since McCain is facing a likely death sentence from his brain tumor and has the sympathy of most of the public because of that.
Trump wisely has refrained from attacking him lately for all of those reasons but his temper won’t be controllable forever. He’s already warned McCain this past week that he’ll hit back if provoked enough and now here’s McCain provoking him again. I think McCain’s baiting him. Eventually Trump will take the bait.