McCain isn't worried about reelection (and that's a good thing)
© Getty Images

It is hard to know what effect the revelations about Russian hacking of the election will have on American politics over the next few years. Everyone I know who watched Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainJuan Williams: Obama's dire warnings about right-wing media Democrats' squabbling vindicates Biden non-campaign McSally, staff asked to break up maskless photo op inside Capitol MORE's (R-Ariz.) speech at the beginning of the hearings on the hacking, however, seems to have had the same initial thought: The guy doesn't have to worry about reelection anymore.

Political scientists have always been leery of proposals for term limits. The reason is simple: Accountability is established through elections, and politicians who don't plan to run for reelection are not accountable to anyone once they have taken office. If a candidate makes promises in his or her campaign for office, it is to be expected that at the next election, voters will be reminded about them.

This is why, for instance, anti-tax groups push candidates to sign pledges. If, however, they decide not to run again, the biggest risk they face from reneging on their promises comes from their own consciences.

In addition, studies of state legislatures that have term limits have shown that term-limited legislators are unable to acquire expertise in state policy, and this either weakens their ability to legislate effectively or gives more power to unelected bureaucrats or lobbyists.

There is a lengthy political science literature on "shirking" — that is, changes in the voting habits of legislators as a result of their decision not to seek reelection. No one thinks retiring legislators change radically. Some House members seeking the Senate change their votes to fit the constituency they hope to represent in the future. Some legislators approaching retirement miss votes because they're busy cleaning out their offices and getting their papers in order.

Such shirking is hardly a matter of concern. A greater worry is that legislators may start positioning themselves for their post-Congress careers. The revolving door between elected office and K Street may lead some politicians to do favors for their future employers. This is part of the reason why Congress has worked to increase the waiting time between service in Congress and the ability of former members to lobby their one-time colleagues.

Despite these problems, term limits for members of Congress have been popular with the public. This is undoubtedly driven mostly by the fact that we just hate Congress so much. It also may come from the fact that our lone national term limit law — the one that limits presidents to two full terms — has arguably been effective. It limits the ability of presidents to gain too much power, and there may well be some positive consequences that come from freeing presidents to burnish their legacy — to play for the history books — in their second terms.

What does this all have to do with McCain? The Arizona senator is 80 years old and just won reelection to his sixth term in office. Everyone assumes he is not going to run again. One of the main arguments of his primary opponent, Kelli Ward, was that he was about to die.


McCain once styled himself as a "maverick," and positioned himself as a sort of progressive Republican during the 1990s and early 2000s. He was then the Democrats' favorite Republican. This reputation arguably helped him position himself in his 2008 presidential bid as an antidote to Republican scandals.

Yet McCain lost some of this luster afterwards, and he aggressively sought to establish himself as a loyal Republican as he sought to ward off conservative primary challengers in 2010 and 2016.

Yet McCain is clearly the sort of politician who once wanted a legacy; he had a vision of how he would be a president who would not just follow the party line. There are a half-dozen or so Senate Republicans who are said to have misgivings about rubber-stamping Trump's Cabinet appointees and early policy goals. Yet all of the others are either still concerned about facing Republican electorates, or, in a handful of cases, said to be skeptical of Trump because of their reelection concerns.

McCain is the only one that just doesn't have to worry about those things, who just might stand up to Trump because he doesn't have to run again.

I don't know if this will ultimately mean anything, but it should at least make us think a bit more about the value of legislators who aren't accountable to the voters anymore.

Robert G. Boatright is a professor of political science at Clark University and the director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse Research Network.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.