“He’s a western Republican; he’s always followed his own road out there,” says Jim Kessler, a former senate aide who is now with Third Way, a moderate Democratic group. Democrats cheer the return of McCain as maverick, Republicans not so much. Democrats want to believe McCain is the canary in the coal mine, signaling a new GOP on the horizon; Republicans don’t take him seriously. “Here’s the problem with McCain: he’s an old guy, and when you remake a party, you need to do it generationally,” says Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow in the Governance Studies program at the Brookings Institution. “He’s always been a maverick, and even though now he’s doing it for the right reasons, he’s not going to be taken seriously.”

Kamarck was one of the founders of the New Democrat movement that helped elect Bill Clinton. Clinton was able to go into black churches and talk about welfare reform, and still get the votes of African-Americans who were most fearful of changes in the government social-welfare system. In her view, Republican Marco Rubio comes closest to that model of someone able to challenge his party’s base on immigration and survive and potentially thrive if he can pull it off.

“A bunch of distinguished old white men saying the right things doesn’t change the party,” says Kamarck. “He’s (McCain) going with his heart, and he’s clearly been around long enough to know the direction they’re heading is not particularly productive, but he doesn’t have a think tank, he doesn’t have a movement—it’s just him.” For a party in the throes of an ideological civil war, McCain taking sides is worth noting, but that’s all.