Why is John McCain being such a jerk?

The post-election lovefest is over. The defeated senator has even learned Twitter to attack Obama. But don't call him jealous.

Topics: Barack Obama, John McCain, R-Ariz.,

Why is John McCain being such a jerk?

A couple of weeks after Barack Obama beat John McCain in the election last year, the former rivals got together in Chicago for a friendly chat. The meeting went so well, despite the months of political combat, that they issued a joint statement afterward, promising to work hand-in-hand to reform government. The night before Obama took office this year, he threw a dinner in McCain’s honor. Both men said they hoped they could put the bruising campaign behind them.

Which is why the way McCain is spending his time less than two months later is a little strange: Lately, he seems to be going out of his way to remind the country of how much he and Obama disagree. Two weeks ago, at a White House fiscal responsibility forum, he called out the president  on the cost of his helicopter (a helicopter ordered during the previous administration). Last week, McCain spent hours on the Senate floor helping to lead GOP opposition to a bill to give the District of Columbia a vote in the House, a measure Obama supported as president and is expected to sign if it makes it through Congress. And this week, he’s gone after Obama explicitly — and repeatedly — over about $7 billion worth of earmarks in a massive “omnibus” spending bill that costs more than $400 billion and wraps up three-quarters of the federal government’s discretionary spending for the current fiscal year in one big package. “Americans all over this country hope for change,” McCain said in a Monday afternoon tirade in the Senate. “They hope the corruption, earmarking and pork-barrel practices will stop. What are we giving them? We are giving them a slap in the face, that is what we are giving them … So much for the promise of change.” McCain got so worked up about the spending bill, in fact, that he learned how to use Twitter last week, taking over from the aides who used to post for him, and began publishing snarky 140-character wisecracks about individual projects. He has complained about money for “Mormon cricket control” in Utah, the teaching of “art energy,” and a telescope in Hawaii. (“Nothing says new jobs for average Americans like investing in astronomy.”)



Unlike during the campaign, Obama and his aides haven’t taken any of the bait; the White House has studiously avoided engaging in a debate with McCain, even while Obama aides push back against more general complaints about the spending bill. Which makes the spectacle of a scowling McCain railing about the way the administration is handling the spending bill even stranger. “The president’s budget person says, ‘We want to move on,’” McCain said Monday. “That is insulting to the American people.” The diatribes are getting McCain plenty of exposure on cable news, but they’re also starting to make observers wonder if the man who rolled his eyes at “that one” during the presidential debates is having trouble moving on from last November’s defeat.

McCain, at least, says that’s not what’s going on. At a Capitol Hill press conference Wednesday morning to introduce legislation to give the White House a line-item veto, McCain made a special point of bashing the Obama administration’s handling of the omnibus bill again. But then he sounded shocked when Salon asked him whether there was any trouble in his relationship with the president. “I’m the — as I said, the loyal opposition,” McCain said. “Both words [are] operative. I want to work with the president where we can, and I have on several issues.”

That’s certainly true; McCain went straight from the press conference to the White House, where he was the only Republican to join Obama at an event where the president called for the Pentagon to stop wasting money on bloated private contracts. A few days before, McCain gave his support to Obama’s plan to withdraw troops from Iraq, though he had hammered Obama during the campaign for proposing that very idea. Even the helicopter complaint at the White House came in the context of procurement reform, which Obama’s advisors had already reached out to McCain on, knowing they could find common ground there.

“None of this means anything in terms of where McCain’s going — he’s getting mad at the White House, he’s not getting mad at the White House, or he’s bitter from the election or he’s not bitter from the election,” one McCain advisor told Salon. “It means just what it always means from McCain — what you see is what you get.” McCain has no problem grumbling about Obama on one issue, then driving up Pennsylvania Avenue to work with him on another — even if the rest of the political world is likely to ask what he’s up to. (That unpredictability, mixed with rage, is precisely what drives Senate Republicans crazy about McCain at times.) McCain’s allies say he also popped off at George W. Bush on spending, as well, but considering that Bush, like Obama, also beat McCain in a presidential campaign, that may not be much of a defense. It’s hard to imagine he doesn’t realize calling out Obama will make news, or that people will wonder if the fact that Obama remains far more popular than he is might be what really bothers him.

But even if McCain is just swinging away at runaway federal spending — a foe of his long before he ever heard the name “Barack Obama” — he may not be doing himself many favors in the process. For one thing, much of the money McCain has attacked in the spending bill would fund scientific research. The names of the individual projects may be easily lampooned, but as Bobby Jindal discovered last week, just because something sounds silly doesn’t mean it’s smart to bash it. For another, Republicans — who, unlike Obama, actually still have the power to put earmarks into legislation — are certainly taking their share of pork in the spending bill. McCain acknowledged that, but still bashed the White House for not taking a harder line on spending.

At a deeper level, though, in light of the massive problems the government is trying to deal with, it’s hard for anyone except McCain to get that worked up over the earmark battle. He and Obama covered all this ground during the campaign last year; during the presidential debates, voters could be forgiven for thinking McCain’s entire economic plan boiled down to eliminating earmarks. Voters evidently weren’t sufficiently moved by McCain’s anti-earmark outrage to put him in office. “There’s a reason he’s not president — this stuff is just tiresome, and it’s not what people care about these days,” said a Democratic operative who worked on the campaign last fall. Could you argue that, as McCain says, there’s something ridiculous about spending $380,000 on a “recreation and fairground area” in Kotzebue, Alaska? Sure — though McCain might know someone in Alaska who would disagree. But after eight years of the policies McCain mostly promised to continue if he won the election, eliminating the millions — or even billions — of dollars that get sprinkled around on lawmakers’ pet projects isn’t going to fix much.

 

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>