DAVID IGNATIUS: Maverick is back in McCain

By David Ignatius

Sen. John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” has been in the repair shop for a while, but it sure was rolling last week during an interview. The main theme was that Republicans should end their self-isolation and “start working for the American people.”
Journalists have always had a soft spot for McCain when he’s in the mode of bipartisan conciliator. And I don’t want to overstate the evidence of an hour-long conversation the other day in McCain’s Senate office. He remains a complex and mercurial man whose support for centrist policies has ebbed and flowed over the years.
What seems to perturb McCain most is some Republicans’ willingness to harm the military as part of “sequestration” budget cuts. You can hear the Vietnam veteran and former POW speaking when McCain describes the military impact as “so appalling I can’t describe to you how upset I am.”
Why is the GOP bending toward its isolationist wing? McCain says the party is suffering from “war weariness,” and from its continued stress on spending cuts to the exclusion of other issues.
Early in the interview, McCain mentioned that he has been talking with President Obama about immigration reform. When I asked if he had also raised Syria, where McCain has been sharply critical of administration passivity, he said no: “I don’t want to get into an argument with the president.” That’s interesting for a combative man who often can’t resist a zinger.
McCain said he is talking bipartisanship now because “I really believe the American people are fed up.”
The centerpiece of McCain’s new outreach is his engagement with Obama, which reverses a long period of frosty relations that culminated in his recent battle against former GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense.
When I asked if the Hagel attacks were too partisan, he repeated his disagreements on principle with the nominee, but then conceded: “I plead guilty to being combative, to being zealous, to overreaching sometimes.”
“The president and I have established what I believe is a working relationship,” McCain said, citing his role in Obama’s celebrated dinner with Republican senators at the Jefferson Hotel this month.
McCain said many other prominent Republicans share his view that it’s time to walk back from the partisan cliff.
“The Republicans have a problem,” he added bluntly. “The president’s [approval] numbers are going down, but not nearly as much as the Republicans’.”
What accounts for McCain’s new tone, and the return of the happy warrior of the center? Certainly, he’s prickly about recent comments that his jihad against Hagel showed he had become “bitter” or “angry.” Not so, he insisted. After surviving torture in a North Vietnamese prison and cancer surgery, “I’m the luckiest man who ever lived. I should have gone a long time ago. I don’t want to look back on any wasted days.”
DAVID IGNATIUS’ email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.