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John McCain faces revenge of the 'wacko birds'

By Ruben Navarrette
January 28, 2014 -- Updated 1226 GMT (2026 HKT)
The GOP in John McCain's state has censured him for not being conservative enough.
The GOP in John McCain's state has censured him for not being conservative enough.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Arizona GOP censured John McCain for being insufficiently conservative
  • Ruben Navarrette says McCain has been admirable when he's been a maverick
  • His willingness to challenge orthodoxy is refreshing, Navarrette says
  • Navarrette: But when McCain faced right-wing challenger, he adopted wild stands

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter @rubennavarrette.

San Diego, California (CNN) -- John McCain is stuck in an ideological no-man's land. The Arizona senator is not sufficiently liberal for liberals. But nor is he conservative enough for conservatives.

In an extraordinary gesture on Saturday, the Arizona Republican Party formally censured McCain, who is one of the most respected and powerful elected officials in the state. Those who adopted the resolution cited a legislative record that they say is insufficiently conservative on issues such as immigration reform and funding Obamacare.

They also seem upset that McCain has worked with Democrats to pass legislation dealing with issues such as campaign finance reform. McCain has always been a hawk on national defense, and his pro-life credentials are solid. But, on other issues, he is a moderate -- at least by Arizona standards.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Arizona GOP rebukes McCain for not being conservative enough

Former Sen. Jon Kyl, who represented Arizona in the Senate for three terms and whose own conservative credentials were rarely called into question by Republicans, stood by McCain. He told the Arizona Republic that McCain's record was "very conservative," and he called the resolution "wacky."

There's that word again -- or at least a variation of it. Do you remember when McCain got in a rhetoric shoving match with Senate rookie Ted Cruz of Texas? Last year, McCain called Cruz, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Rep. Justin Amash, R-Michigan, "wacko birds." He later apologized.

Partly, that's what this vote in Arizona is about. It's revenge of the wacko birds. During that tussle with the tea party faction of the Senate, many of the Republican faithful -- both in Arizona and around the country -- made it known that they preferred the confrontational approach on issues such as whether to fund Obamacare.

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McCain and other senators within the Republican establishment such as Lindsey Graham of South Carolina were seen as much too accommodating. Obviously, there are plenty of Republicans with good memories.

During their tussle, Cruz tweaked McCain by appearing to include him in what the tea party party favorite called the Senate's "surrender caucus." Cruz later denied using those words, but audio of Cruz's appearance on the Sean Hannity radio show proved otherwise.

For McCain, whose record of military service is well-known, any talk of surrender is tantamount to fighting words.

Perhaps. But I've seen McCain surrender before -- to right-wing Republicans in his home state when his political career seems jeopardized. That record is also fairly well-known and not nearly as commendable.

I first met McCain in the late 1990s when I was a reporter and metro columnist for The Arizona Republic. I wrote some nice things about him and praised his ability to carve out an average of 60% of the Hispanic vote in his re-election campaigns.

By the time McCain ran for president the first time, in 2000, I'd left the newspaper and returned to graduate school. I was a big fan of the "maverick" aboard the "Straight Talk Express" who, according to the marketing, had gotten crossways with stuffy Senate colleagues by putting solutions ahead of partisanship and working with Democrats.

Twice during the campaign, I bumped into McCain, and he recognized me on sight. He would shake my hand enthusiastically. In 2008, when he ran again, I interviewed him and wrote a column laying out the case that he was a better choice for Latinos than Barack Obama.

Then came the senator's radical makeover.

In 2010, McCain found himself running for re-election against J.D. Hayworth, a former congressman turned right-wing radio talk show host. With polls showing that McCain was vulnerable to being turned out of office, the maverick became the conformist. He seemed determined to "out crazy" Hayworth on immigration, supporting the Arizona immigration law. That statute was opposed by 70% of Hispanics nationwide.

I harshly criticized McCain for being so quick to throw Hispanics under the bus. I had hoped that someone who withstood five and a half years of torture in a North Vietnamese prison camp would have been stronger and able to resist those in his own party who tried to pull him to the nativist fringe -- and, by all appearances, succeeded in getting their way.

The low point had to have been in June 2011, when McCain -- with no evidence to back it up -- blamed some Arizona wildfires on illegal immigrants. The real culprits turned out to be two campers who had been careless about putting out their campfire, and wound up being fined $3.7 million in damages. The senator wound up with huevos rancheros on his face.

Now, as McCain decides whether to run again for re-election in 2016 -- when he'll be 80, and for what would be his sixth term in the Senate -- he seems to be drifting back to the middle.

On immigration, he is signaling that he is ready to support the kind of comprehensive solution that he once championed. Perhaps in response to that, the crazies on the far right are -- through gestures like this resolution -- pulling again.

Let's hope that, this time, he is stronger and better able to resist. It would be nice to have the maverick back for good.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette

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