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The coming epic Republican flip-flop on Hillary Clinton

John McCain goes from calling Clinton's State Department record "outstanding" to questioning if she has any real accomplishments at all.
Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., talks with reporters during a break in a hearing on Feb. 4, 2015, Washington, D.C. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty)
Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., talks with reporters during a break in a hearing on Feb. 4, 2015, Washington, D.C.

When Arizona Sen. John McCain sat down this week with NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell to reveal his plans to run for reelection in 2016, the Republican was eager to take an opportunity to knock the opposing party’s potential presidential nominee.

"I think that a legitimate question to Hillary Clinton is, 'What did you accomplish during your four years as secretary of state? Except that you visited more countries than any other previous secretary of state. What was your accomplishment?'” he said. "So far, I don't know what an answer to that would be."

Questioning Clinton’s record at State has become routine for Republicans during Clinton’s long walk to the starting line of a presidential campaign, but two years ago, McCain did have an answer to his question.

"Her work as secretary of state, with the exception of this issue of Benghazi — which isn’t going away — I think has been outstanding,” he told reporters in Chicago in late 2013. “I think she would be viewed by anyone, Republican or Democrat, as a very formidable candidate for 2016.”

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In 2011, McCain said Clinton was doing “a tremendous job” as secretary of state.

How did McCain, whose spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment, go from “outstanding” to baffled on Clinton’s record? It’s a been a while since McCain swigged vodka shots with Clinton in Estonia and since she called him her “favorite Republican,” but McCain is hardly alone among Republicans who are having an awkward time breaking up with Clinton.

There will be many more following McCain as praise for Secretary Clinton morphs into criticism of likely Democratic presidential candidate Clinton.

Not long ago, some Republicans even seemed to long for a second Clinton administration. "Look, if we had a Clinton presidency ... I think we would have fixed this fiscal mess by now,” Rep. Paul Ryan said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in January of 2013. “[But] that's not the kind of presidency we're dealing with right now."

McCain and Ryan’s praise for Clinton came after Clinton completed her tenure as secretary of state. While it’s possible her post-government career has alienated the lawmakers, politics are likely at play.

Part of it is that, for Republicans, Clinton once served as a useful cudgel against her then-boss and one-time rival for the White House — but now, she’s just a threat.

Her epic clash with Obama in 2008 was largely about differing philosophies on foreign policy, and Republicans were keen to highlight the contrast between a White House they viewed as feckless and a secretary of state known to favor a more muscular posture on the world stage.

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Former Vice President Dick Cheney, one of the Obama administration’s fiercest critics on national security, sought to play up the difference on Fox News Sunday in 2011. “Perhaps she might have been easier for some of us who are critics of the president to work with” Cheney said of a prospective Clinton presidency. “I have a sense that she's one of the more competent members of the current administration and it would be interesting to speculate about how she might to perform were she to be president.”

For Ryan, it was similar dynamic between on fiscal issues.

And even Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO who has based her potential 2016 presidential campaign on attacking Clinton, was once a fan of the Democrat. “Having started as a secretary and eventually become a chief executive officer, I not only have great admiration and respect for Hillary Clinton and her candidacy and her leadership, but I also have great empathy, I must tell you, for what she went through,” she said in 2008 while campaigning for McCain’s presidential bid.

But with a presidential campaign season getting underway, Republicans will likely have no qualms abandoning their erstwhile praise for Clinton.

Despite — or perhaps because of — her polarizing profile as first lady, Clinton worked hard to build relationships across the aisle when she joined the Senate in 2001. McCain became one of her closest GOP friends, and as recently as a year ago, he invited her to participate in a global affairs forum the veteran senator hosts in Arizona.

Even the best Washington friendships may not endure the heat of a presidential campaign.