The McCain scrutiny

If John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain argues with Andrew Yang about free marriage counseling proposal Veterans groups hand out USS John McCain shirts on National Mall during Trump speech Trump is still on track to win reelection MORE locks up the Republican nomination and has any hope of becoming the next Republican president, he might consider spending his leftover campaign cash to micro-target that last remaining fringe group that could help him get to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. — Republicans.

Specifically, House Republicans — and trust me, there is some serious wooing to be done.

The sound-off items that fill the air at any respectable AMR (Anti-McCain Republican) Caucus session are too numerous to delineate. But the short list includes: McCain’s support of First Amendment-crushing, free speech-stifling campaign finance reform, the left wing-coddling activities of the Senate’s Gang of 14, the amnesty-granting immigration reform bill and the ultimate Republican apostasy — opposition to the President Bush’s tax cuts.

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The list not only infuriates House Republicans but also gives those high-decibel, right-wing radio hosts all the underbrush they need to fuel their daily conflagrations. Politicians within a party seldom walk in lockstep on every issue, and they tend to make allowances for a brother who is with them most of the time but just happens to be “wrong” on this or that issue.

But House Republicans don’t apply the Golden Rule to Brother McCain. Each perceived McCainian variance from the Republican mainstream is not only not seen as an opportunity to celebrate diversity in a big tent, it is further proof — in their minds, anyway — that McCain is a true-to-the-core-truth-be-told liberal.

But listing all the policy issue differences between House Republicans and McCain doesn’t tell the whole story. It is more basic than that. House Republicans’ disdain for McCain is visceral and personal. They simply don’t like him and don’t trust him.

Several episodes underscore this point, but none more than one from 2004. In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations that year, McCain had the audacity to utter an apparent Republican heresy when he suggested that the American people were not sacrificing enough to pay for the Iraq war and further, that cutting taxes during wartime was not necessarily the need of the hour.

McCain: “As the appropriations season starts up, it is clear that we simply cannot have it all — tax cuts, pork for the special interests, ever-growing entitlement programs and war in Iraq. Congress cannot demand discipline and sacrifice only of the men and women fighting in the desert. We need it at home as well.”

I listened to the April speech on C-SPAN radio and thought I might get a little reaction from Republican leaders the next time I had the opportunity. The opportunity came along in spades.

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Following a weekly meeting of the House GOP conference, then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) held court at the normal basement stakeout location, just around the corner from the Capitol Hill Police substation and House ethics committee.

Flanked by former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Whip Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntGOP balks at White House push for standalone vote on debt ceiling Republicans say they're satisfied with 2020 election security after classified briefings GOP senators decline to criticize Acosta after new Epstein charges MORE (R-Mo.), a slew of Hill staffers provided all the Amen Chorus the Speaker needed as he instructed the former Vietnam POW on the issue of sacrifice.

Let’s go to the videotape:

Mills: I heard a speech by John McCain the other day …

Hastert: Who?

(Laughter)

Mills: John McCain.

Hastert: Where’s he from?

(Laughter)

Mills: He’s a Republican from Arizona.

Hastert: He’s a Republican?

(More laughter)

Mills: McCain’s observation was that never before when we’ve been at war have we worried about cutting taxes. In short, “Where’s the sacrifice?”

At which point Hastert blew his Speakatorial gasket.

Hastert: You wanna see the sacrifice?! John McCain oughta visit our young men and women at Walter Reed and Bethesda. There’s the sacrifice!

After explaining that taking care of the troops and the economy could be done at the same time, Hastert said tax cuts were just the kind of “flexibility” the country needed to keep things on Main Street humming.  

“And that’s my message to John McCain!” Hastert harrumphed, making no mistake about his anger — and its target.

When news of Hastert’s lecture made its way to the Senate, McCain slapped back in a press release:

“The Speaker is correct in saying that nothing we are called upon to do comes close to matching the heroism of our troops. All we are called upon to do is to not spend our nation into bankruptcy while our soldiers risk their lives. I fondly remember a time when real Republicans stood for fiscal responsibility. Apparently those days are long gone for some in our party.”

There is something more than these high-drama episodes at play here.

House Republicans deeply resent what they see as a Maverick-Fighter-Jock-seduced press not only giving Grandstander McCain a free ride but also conspiratorially goading him into tweaking members of his own party, while caricaturing most other Republicans as mean-spirited and uninterested in the plight of the little guy.

With either Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump complains of 'fake polls' after surveys show him trailing multiple Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton responds to Trump tweets telling Dem lawmakers to 'go back' to their countries The Young Turks' Cenk Uygur: Here's how to choose a president MORE or Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaJulián Castro: 'Everybody knows that the President acts like a white supremacist' Ex-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel joins ABC News as contributor Daily Mail: Ex-British ambassador said Trump left Iran deal to spite Obama MORE at the top of the Democratic ticket, conventional wisdom suggests that rank-and-file Republicans will suck it up, hold their noses, and support McCain despite their spats. Maybe so. Maybe not. I have my doubts. But with Valentine’s Day coming up, and the big dance scheduled for the fall, somebody better start thinking about sending flowers and candy.

Jim Mills can be reached at jmills@thehill.com.