John McCain speaks during The Daily Beast's 2nd Annual Hero Summit at Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium on Oct. 10, 2013 in Washington, DC. 
Photo by Kris Connor/Getty

If only John McCain’s actions matched John McCain’s rhetoric

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a steadfast Republican partisan for many years, is suddenly generating quite a bit of attention for raising concerns about a president from his own party.
Republican Sen. John McCain took a veiled swipe at President Donald Trump’s attacks on the media, cautioning that suppressing the press “is how dictators get started.”

McCain, who has broken with Trump on several issues, made the comments in an exclusive interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd, after being asked about the president’s condemnation of several media outlets as “fake news” and “an enemy of the American people.”
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“I hate the press. I hate you especially,” McCain joked. “But the fact is we need you. We need a free press. We must have it. It’s vital.” He added, “If you want to preserve – I’m very serious now – if you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press. And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.”

The senator did not, for the record, call Donald Trump a dictator, but the implications of McCain’s rhetoric of late aren’t exactly subtle. The Arizona Republican delivered striking remarks on Friday that took aim at the Trump White House’s foreign policy; he had some provocative things to say about the infamous Russian dossier; he chastised the administration’s approach to national security as “dysfunctional”; and he’s separated himself from a variety of key elements of the Trump agenda.

The president himself has been annoyed enough with McCain to send a few snide tweets in his direction.

This, naturally, has led to a resurgence of media affection for the longtime senator – with plenty of outlets dragging his “maverick” nickname out of storage. The New York Times today labeled McCain Trump’s “Critic in Chief.”

Before the gushing gets completely out of hand, it’s worth pausing to appreciate the disconnect between McCain’s rhetoric and his actions.

Sure, the GOP senator has been willing to criticize Trump – at times, in surprisingly forceful terms – which is more than can be said for many of his congressional Republican colleagues, nearly all of whom remain silent, despite genuine concerns. But McCain doesn’t just give speeches and sit down for interviews; he’s also a sitting senator who casts votes.

And in the Senate, so far this year, McCain is voting with Trump’s position 94% of the time. As a factual matter, the senator is a Maverick in Name Only.

I’m more than happy to give McCain credit for standing up in support of American principles, rhetorically defying a president of his own party, but his posture is clearly incomplete. McCain’s boldness ends when the voting in the Senate begins.

Those eager to defend the senator will say electoral pressures create conditions in which McCain effectively has no choice but to toe the party line. The truth, however, is that he just won re-election; he’s 80; and there’s no reason to assume he’s running for re-election in November 2022.

For that matter, 16 years ago, McCain was an actual maverick – voting against key Republican priorities, including the Bush/Cheney tax cuts – so it’s not as if we’re lacking a credible point of comparison.

And yet, much of the political world seems inclined to credit McCain for resisting Trump’s more outlandish excesses, even though McCain isn’t following through when it counts. Worse, there are Democrats trying to get attention for the fact that they’re actually resisting Trump both rhetorically and legislatively. It creates a dynamic in which voters are led to believe McCain’s verbal rebukes matter far more than more substantive Democratic opposition, which paints an outrageously misleading picture.

Maybe this will change in the coming months. Perhaps McCain will soon start breaking with his party, leveraging the power that senators in the majority have in a 52-48 chamber, and forcing real changes. Maybe McCain’s concerns will become more substantive and meaningful. There’s a fair amount of power in the senator’s hands, and it’s possible he’ll starting using it in constructive ways.

But in 2013, I wrote, “Every few years, we’re greeted with a fresh round of ‘Maybe the Maverick is back!’ headlines. As you may have noticed, they don’t last.”

This time could be different, but given McCain’s recent voting record, I wouldn’t count on it.