Political reporters, for whatever reason, have always had a lot invested in John McCain. Reporters were enthralled by McCain the "maverick" 2000 presidential candidate, advancing the campaign's theme that McCain was a different kind of Republican.
There was never much to this act; McCain had a solidly conservative record before being lionized as a maverick. He briefly tacked to the middle after losing the Republican nomination in 2000, then was soon back to being one of the most reliably conservative Republicans in Congress.
But the press that made the maverick storyline stick is stuck with it, and every so often reporters are forced to try and argue that there's a new version of John McCain. In early 2009, the Washington Post reported the maverick McCain was back, after losing his mavericky credentials in his campaign against Obama; by the end of that year, the L.A. Times was noting that the maverick McCain seemed gone, swapped out for a conservative Republican. Sometimes it's hard to figure out what the word "maverick" even means; when McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, somehow the selection of a hard-right conservative was proof that he was… a maverick.
Which brings us to this January 27 New York Times piece, "Once a Rebel, McCain Now Walks the Party Line." Now a more accurate headline would be "Conservative Republican Still GOP Team Player," but that would sound… well, not very newsworthy.
Reporter Jennifer Steinhauer writes that McCain "regularly transforms himself," and has done so once again:
Absent is the maverick who bucked his party on the environment and campaign finance, and verbally towel-snapped Republicans and Democrats alike on the Senate floor.
Gone, too, is the far-right leaning Mr. McCain of 2010, who found himself in a primary fight back home that caused him to retreat from his stances on immigration and global warming.
Mr. McCain instead appears to have entered Version 3 of his long and multipronged Senate career–partisan warrior and party stalwart. He takes to the Sunday TV talk shows, the Senate floor and the Capitol hallways that are filled with more reporters than mosquitoes at a garden party to press his party's agenda on taxes, military spending and national security.
This is made to sound dramatic only if you buy the premise: That McCain was ever much of a maverick. Since there's little evidence of that–and since his positions on these issues have always been fairly consistent–you're left with a profile of a conservative lawmaker who's still very much a conservative lawmaker.
The piece makes it sound like McCain has re-emerged from some sort of hiatus–"after nearly three years of sniping from the sidelines, Mr. McCain is a polestar on nearly every major issue consuming the Senate." We also learn that "often these days, he actually smiles."
But McCain, smiling or not, didn't exactly leave the public arena. Through those years on the "sidelines" he remained a regular on the Sunday talk shows–the 7th most frequent congressional guest in 2010 and the 2nd most in 2011, according to Roll Call's tallies.
Ssomehow we're supposed to think he's re-emerged:
McCain is also a very useful advocate for his party in an election year. He provides credibility on military issues and can employ his rhetorical gifts on the Sunday talk shows (where he has appeared more than any other member of Congress this year, according to a tally by the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call) to promote the party view in a way that Mr. McConnell and others cannot.
McCain has rhetorical gifts? Who knew.
More importantly: What exactly constitutes McCain's "military credibility"? He is a super-hawk, calling for a more robust U.S. military presence in almost every conflict. He predicted the U.S. would prevail easily in Iraq. But, undeterred, he went on to criticize those who said the war would be easy.
Just like a rhetorically gifted maverick would.