It's a story that's been told before. After a failed bid for the White House, the long-serving senator returned to Capitol Hill. As the years wore on, he sparred with the president, used his name recognition to push his pet causes and became a power broker able to step in when party leadership failed.
But there are differences between the Arizona Republican and the Massachusetts Democrat, and not just those of party or geography. McCain is not adored on his side of the aisle the way Kennedy was on his, and McCain's influence on foreign policy is more indirect than Kennedy's was on domestic policy.
Still, as areas from Iraq to Afghanistan have flared up over the past year, McCain has been the go-to guy for colleagues developing GOP positions, as well a source of colorful quotes for media outlets in need of a Republican critic of President Obama. Not everyone agrees with McCain's hawkish views, but lawmakers respect his opinion because he maintains a vigorous international travel schedule, has long experience in foreign affairs and knows many of the prominent international players.
“Ted Kennedy was the lion of the Senate; this guy is the conscience of the Senate,” said a veteran Republican operative.
The irascible McCain, who turns 78 next month, has served in Congress since 1983. His career hit an apex six years ago when he ran for president and lost — handily — to a 46-year-old fellow senator who had arrived on Capitol Hill just four years before.
The period since has seen the slow fade of McCain's generation of Reagan-era Republicans, and the rising influence of a younger Tea Party set less moored to convention or party.
On politically sensitive legislation that requires bipartisan compromises, like last year's “gang of eight” comprehensive immigration reform bill and recent legislation to overhaul the scandal-plagued Department of Veterans Affairs, McCain is often a central Republican negotiator. Colleagues credit experience he brings to the table as fifth-term senator.
Still, McCain remains McCain.
McCain’s temper is legendary. He occasionally explodes during floor debates and has referred to Republicans affiliated with the Tea Party as “wacko birds.” It is said that every one of his colleagues has received at least one note of apology from the fiery Arizonan.
But his demeanor in private negotiations is that of a listener willing to work with anyone, Democrat or Republican, according to members who marvel at his ability to strike deals. He is the Republican mediator of last resort when partisan disputes threaten to grind Senate business to a halt.
Last summer he helped restore comity to the chamber, if only briefly, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid threatened to invoke the “nuclear option” and diminish the minority party's power to block presidential appointments. Reid ultimately jammed through the controversial rules change a few months later; McCain responded by calling the Nevada Democrat a “dictator.”
“John's stock is high right now,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told the Washington Examiner. “When John speaks, people give him deference and listen because of the sacrifice he's made to our country -- because of his willingness to stand up to his own party at times.”
McCain's political Image is inexorably tied to his personal story as a Vietnam combat veteran.
A naval aviator, McCain was shot down in October 1967 while on a bombing mission and spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” He was tortured repeatedly by his captors, causing permanent physical disabilities. The North Vietnamese offered to free McCain when they found out his father was a Navy admiral, but he refused when they declined to also free his fellow POWs.
Graham is a friend and confidant of McCain, and might be expected to credit his colleague’s military service for the influence and stature that McCain enjoys in the twilight of his career.
But other Republicans who are fond of McCain or Republicans who are not — and they are legion — agree that his commitment to country, as demonstrated by his heroism in Vietnam, is high among the reasons they seek his counsel. Democrats respect him for his consistent willingness to jab his own party as vigorously as he jabs theirs.
“He's willing to take a position that's different from most of his caucus, and there's not a whole lot of folks that that's true of, whether it's Democrats or Republicans,” said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee on which McCain serves as the ranking Republican.
The day after McCain lost the presidency to Barack Obama, in November 2008, he gathered with his closest supporters and advisers in Sedona, Ariz., north of Phoenix. Republican consultant Charlie Black and his wife, invited by McCain to join him, made the trip.
For the next day and a half, Black recalls, McCain made phone calls, mostly to thank the teams of people that had supported his White House bid, which he had pursued in some form or another for 10 years. But by Thursday afternoon, Black said, less than 48 hours after his devastating defeat, McCain and Graham were sitting together in the senator’s summer home plotting the legislation they wanted to propose in the next Congress.
In an interview, McCain said it never occurred to respond to the loss by retreating from public life and retiring from the Senate when his fourth term ended in 2010. Indeed, the senator is preparing to run for re-election in 2016, and making a concerted effort to ensure that Arizonans don't mistake his globetrotting and focus on national security issues for a failure to spend time on the local concerns of his constituents.
McCain recently toured border facilities in Nogales, which has been affected by the crisis of unaccompanied illegal immigrant minors, and is working with Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., on fire, water and drought issues that affect his state.
It is evident, however, that the senator relishes his role as a national leader. The challenges faced by the U.S. around the world, and his perch of influence in shaping how the country responds, is a key motivating factor in his decision to run for a sixth term. If Republicans win control of the Senate this year, McCain would become chairman of the Armed Services Committee in 2015.
Earlier in McCain’s career, he was considered the anti-Establishment thorn in the GOP’s side. He acknowledges, with an almost mischievous smile, that he isn’t universally liked and regales in telling stories about the countless colleagues he has angered at one time or another.
But now that the former “maverick” is an Establishment wise man, McCain is more determined than ever to make his mark in the upper chamber.
“I want most of all to make sure that I will continue to play as large a role as I can in shaping the future of the country,” McCain said. “The more I’ve been here, the more I’ve understood that you have to have a consensus in order to achieve that.”