McCain certainly knows that when he votes with Democrats, he will be almost guaranteed to earn the admiration of the press, which worships "rebels." He also knows that unlike other members of the Senate who actually buck their party much more often than he does (Ben Nelson, Olympia Snowe, etc.), when he crosses the aisle he will become the starring player in the story the press will write. Instead of a conflict between Democrats and Republicans, it becomes a conflict between Republicans and the courageous rebel John McCain, complete with interviews on the Sunday shows.
Finally, if you look at the instances in which McCain has bucked his party, in nearly every case it has been when his party was on the wrong side of public opinion. So he's doing the popular thing, winning the praise of his primary constituency (the press), ensuring a wave of positive media coverage, and reinforcing his "maverick" brand. Yeah, that sure takes guts.
I was rather disappointed that they chose to include this piece. I am in favor of a newspaper looking to include as many perspectives as possible however they should maintain honest perspectives with integrity. This piece has neither. This piece is fall of vague and unsubstantiated slander and furthermore it is just plain wrong in its characterization of McCain's dissent from his party. First of all, Waldman is no mind reader and so the assertion that all of McCain's dissents were nothing more than a cynical ploy to position himself for the Presidency is nothing more than a smear.
More than that though, Waldman totally mischaracterizes McCain's moments of dissent from his party. The idea that each and everytime McCain strayed from the party was always in line with public opinion is simply not accurate. Let's examine McCain's most publicized dissents from the rest of his party.
1) Campaign Finance Reform
I don't remember the polling and so I will be generous and cede to Waldman that on this issue public opinion was on his side. While this is possible, whatever good will he received from the rest of the public this was eclipsed by the venom within his own party. If he thought Campaign Finance Reform was his ticket to the Presidency, it was quite a gamble. CFR was one of several issues that nearly cost him the nomination. This issue became the symbol of McCain's stray from the right and allowed much of the rest of the field run to his right during the primaries.
2) Bush tax cuts
This is the first issue I thought of when I thought of how ludicrous Waldman's statement was. The Bush tax cuts weren't merely overwhelmingly approved by the Republican base at the time but the public in general. Standing in dissent on this issue put him in the minority on this issue no matter how the poll was taken. For Waldman to proclaim that McCain never stood up for an issue that was unpopular meant he never understood just how popular the Bush tax cuts were when they were passed.
3) Global Warming
Talk about a position with absolutely no political advantage...that's global warming. Of course, the base can't stand this issue. This isn't just unpopular with the base, this is like playing a Britney Spears song at a blues club. Furthermore, the public at large is rather unengaged by the issue. The only folk that care are the far left. If McCain was courting the far left from his perch in the Republican party that is quite the contrarian political strategy. Furthermore, it is a peculiar strategy given some of his other positions.
4)Gang of 14
I haven't seen the polling on this either so I will generously cede Waldman another position that may have been popular with the public. Much more likely is that the public at large didn't really care. The Republican base, on the other hand, was seething. They were itching for the political version of a Mexican standoff and McCain instead produced a negotiated settlement. If McCain won any favor from the public at large it was at much greater expense of the venom of his base.
Do you want to know how cynical Waldman's statemen was? Think about what McCain did on illegal immigration for a second. Let' s put to the side the issue of whether he was right or wrong. During the REPUBLICAN primary he got behind a position that would eventually lead to twelve million people receiving full citizenship even though they initially entered this country illegally. Furthermore, he allied himself on this issue with Ted Kennedy. Again, he did all this during the Republican primary. Furthermore, this issue was only slightly more popular with the public at large than it was with the Republican base. Waldman has the chutzpah to say that McCain never strays unless it is popular. There was no less politically viable position than McCain's comprehensive immigration reform plan.
The only thing less politically viable than his immigration position has been his position on Iraq. In the aftermath of our glorious march into Baghdad, McCain didn't even wait for the dust to settle in order to criticize the strategy. Long before anyone else saw the flaw of the Rumsfeld strategy, McCain was calling for more troops. He said we needed to fight a counter insurgency. While much later on this become the conventional wisdom, all of that happened long after McCain made the observation while it was still blasphemy.
Then, in April of last year, while the war was at its most unpopular, McCain stood up for the newly minted surge strategy and called for giving it time to work. While this is another position that later found its way into conventional wisdom, that was only long after McCain called for it as a lone wolf.
Say what you will about John McCain but the idea that he only takes the politically easy course is just a flat out lie, and these positions are just a few examples. What you will see from these examples is that his independence fits no pattern and thus the only conclusion is that he usually just does what he thinks is right.