John McCain cut rather a sad sight last night as he addressed the Republican National Convention on his 76th birthday. Four years ago, he would have envisaged spending the convention stepping up his campaign for a second presidential term. Now, he was reduced to a speech that attracted only polite interest from delegates, who were far more enthused by the offerings from Rand Paul and Paul Ryan. Few people are consigned to history more rapidly than nominees who lost a presidential election: none since Nixon, with his almost unique powers of resilience, have later campaigned seriously to reclaim the nomination.
At times it felt as though the only applause McCain was receiving was from his home state of Arizona, and even that sprang less from enthusiasm, and more from dutifulness. The strong foreign policy emphasis of his speech seemed almost incongruous: the concerns of his party, and the electorate-at-large, are overwhelmingly of the economic variety in this election. Harping on about Iran and Syria made McCain sound his age.
After his presidential aspirations were ended in 2008, McCain would have expected to become a respected elder statesman of the Republicans, and even a de facto leader of the party in the Senate. Plenty of US politicians, from Henry Clay to Ted Kennedy, have achieved greatness solely through their work in the Senate. But not, alas, McCain.
The rapid collapse of McCain’s standing in his own party was highlighted by the stiff primary challenge he faced in 2010, from a candidate strongly supported by the Tea Party. McCain won, but only through repudiating much of his record as a senator. The self-proclaimed ‘maverick’ image, of which McCain has once been so proud, has been destroyed.
Once an advocate of a moderate policy on immigration, McCain now supported the draconian Arizona SB 1070 law, considered one of the strongest anti-immigration measures in US history. Similarly, previous centrist positions on issues like gays serving in the military and the future of Guantanamo Bay were abandoned in favour of staunchly conservative ones. It all amounted to a ‘flip-flop’ at least as spectacular as anything Mitt Romney has managed.
Ultimately, his plight is a reminder that the ‘moderate Republican’ is a political being of the past. There appears sadly little room for politicians like the old McCain, for whom voting against their own party’s conventional thinking is a source of pride, and proof of fiercely individualistic thinking. And McCain also provides a grim reminder to Romney that, unless he is President at the 2016 Republican Convention, no one will be listening.