Left for politically dead in the summer of 2007, McCain turned around his presidential campaign by stumping for a more aggressive approach to the Iraq War. He regularly joked about how when he looked into the eyes of Russian President Vladimir Putin, he saw three letters: “KGB.”
“Those days are long gone,” Rick Davis, McCain’s 2008 campaign manager, lamented in a recent interview.
Davis serves on the board of the McCain Institute, founded in D.C. a few years before the senator’s death on Aug. 25, 2018. It promotes his views on defending democracy and human rights around the world. One of the institute’s central roles now is building outside coalitions to shore up political support for defending Ukraine against the Russian invasion.
Now five years after his death turned into a call to arms for Democrats and Republicans who believed in U.S. engagement abroad, McCain’s traditional Republican views of national security face their most difficult fight against the isolationist views of former president Donald Trump.
Congress returns this month to debate whether to authorize the more than $20 billion that President Biden has requested to boost Ukraine’s war against Russia and to back Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
That proposal has overwhelming support, except among House Republicans — some of whom are Trump’s most vocal supporters while many others fear his wrath should they oppose him. Trump, the leading GOP presidential contender for 2024, and his supporters do not view Ukraine as part of U.S. national security interests.
“My red line in the sand has always been, I will not vote to fund a war in Ukraine,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a far-right ally to Trump and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), said Thursday at a town hall. Her remarks drew cheers from her conservative constituents.
Tonight, I made an announcement directly to my constituents at my Floyd County Town Hall.
I will not vote to fund the government if Congress doesn’t do this:
– Impeachment Inquiry vote on Joe Biden
– Defund Biden’s weaponization of government
– Eliminate all COVID vaccine and… pic.twitter.com/2WXd4CrV7R
— Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene?? (@RepMTG) August 31, 2023
McCarthy has been uneven on Ukraine, saying last fall that he did not support a “blank check” for Zelensky but then saying he supported the nation’s defense against Russian incursion. During a spring trip to Israel, McCarthy rebuked a Russian reporter who suggested he didn’t support Ukraine.
“I support aid for Ukraine. I do not support what your country has done to Ukraine,” he said.
But he’s never made such forceful comments on U.S. soil. And unlike many in Congress, the House speaker has not traveled to Kyiv. McCarthy initially opposed Biden’s request for more Ukraine funds, suggesting that it should be included in the normal Pentagon budget request instead.
No one quite knows how this legislative fight will end, but McCain’s allies know how he would have approached this battle.
“John McCain would be in Ukraine,” Evelyn Farkas, the executive director of the institute, said in a recent interview, reciting the late senator’s “show up” approach to using congressional delegation trips to demonstrate support. “He would be manning the barricades.”
To that end, Farkas plans to lead a group of business leaders to Kyiv in the fall, part of the McCain Institute’s Ukraine Business Alliance. Lawmakers might be invited to join the trip so they see that even prominent members of the private sector, including Microsoft and other tech companies, support the defense of Ukraine.
In April, the McCain Institute hosted an event in the Capitol with lawmakers educating them about Russia’s 25-year prison term for journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza (a contributor to The Washington Post) for speaking out against Putin. Kara-Muza, who previously spoke at McCain Institute events, served as a pallbearer at the late senator’s 2018 funeral.
Farkas first came into the McCain orbit as a Democratic staffer two decades ago for the late senator’s longtime friend Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), when he was on the Senate Armed Services Committee. She served in the Obama administration as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and other parts of that region, making her a frequent media guest to discuss Putin’s barbarism.
Trump and McCain had the equivalent of an existential battle, beginning a few weeks after the reality TV star launched his presidential campaign in 2015 by attacking McCain’s prisoner-of-war tenure in Vietnam. McCain withdrew his endorsement of the GOP nominee just before the 2016 election after The Post reported Trump’s comments about sexual assault. In 2017, McCain cast the deciding vote against Trump’s attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
But Trump’s soft views toward Putin always sparked the sharpest clashes. Davis, who also worked on GOP presidential campaigns for George H.W. Bush and Robert J. Dole, said the Republican Party’s retreat from its strong national security views would shock McCain.
Trump’s 2016 surprise victory gave him vast control over the conservative media echo chamber, allowing him to regularly mock McCain (even after his death) and others who held similar hawkish views, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Over the last 18 months, the most conservative media personalities — particularly former Fox host Tucker Carlson — have parroted Trump’s anti-Zelensky themes.
“If you tell people enough times that Ukrainians are the problem, sooner or later they’re going to start aping that back to you,” Davis said.
Increasingly, with the elections of 2018, 2020 and 2022, the new crop of Republicans veered toward Trump’s worldview. Some of these far-right conservatives have threatened to oust McCarthy as speaker if they’re upset with how he handles the coming negotiations over government funding, which will include the Ukraine request.
While the speaker has vacillated on Ukraine, McConnell has emerged as McCain’s political heir. He told Politico’s Jonathan Martin that the fight for Ukraine is “the most important thing going on” for his legacy. While in northern Kentucky on Wednesday, McConnell mocked Republicans who don’t defend Ukraine.
“Here we have a group of people fighting for their independence, dismantling the military of one of our biggest adversaries, and people think this is a bad idea,” McConnell said. “Ronald Reagan would turn over in his grave.”
Yet, a few moments later, the Senate leader froze up before the audience for more than 20 seconds, the second such public incident in five weeks. It illustrated that McConnell is very much in the twilight of his career, and the traditional security hawks are looking toward the post-McConnell world.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the No. 3 GOP leader, embraces McCain’s global outlook as a frequent companion on the late senator’s trips abroad — known as “codels,” or congressional delegations traveling on official business. Republican Sens. John Thune (S.D.) and John Cornyn (Tex.), also possible successors to McConnell, lean toward his views as well.
“The international order has kept us out of World War III,” Farkas said, explaining how she tries to educate lawmakers about the domino effect if Putin wins in Ukraine. “There’s a lot at stake here for every human.”
Last month’s GOP presidential debate provided some relief when a majority of candidates raised their hands in support of Ukraine, including former vice president Mike Pence and former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley. Yet three leading candidates — Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy — oppose funds for Ukraine.
Polls show that a majority of GOP voters side with them, not Pence and Haley.
It’s a remarkable shift from 15 years ago, when McCain anchored his entire presidential bid around foreign policy and projecting American leadership abroad. While he went on to lose the general election by a wide margin, McCain retained his place as a critical GOP voice on national security and chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Foreign leaders treated McCain as the equivalent of a secretary of state or defense when one of his congressional delegations landed, Davis recalled. “The man carried the weight of America around the world with him.”
Now those views are growing out of fashion, even with the newest Republicans in the Senate. McCain liked his share of political fights, even those he lost, frequently deploying the “a fight not joined was a fight not enjoyed” line.
“I think he would be angry,” Davis said of the current state of global affairs. “He would’ve rolled up his sleeves, hit the floor of the Senate.”
The question is, for McCain’s heirs, who will join those fights in the years to come?