Reboots are in vogue these days, and politics is no exception. With Donald Trump in the White House, some in the media have crowned a familiar foe to take him on: “maverick” Republican Sen. John McCain. McCain was first tagged a “maverick” for standing up to his party when he ran for president in 2000 and 2008. And as was true in years past when Maverick McCain became the center of media attention, some people — such as Deadspin’s Alex Pareene — are pouring cold water on the whole idea, arguing that McCain is more talk than action — a MINO, if you will, or maverick in name only.
It remains to be seen just how much of a thorn McCain will be in Trump’s side, but history suggests that both camps of the “is McCain a maverick?” argument have a point. Over his Senate career, McCain has been only slightly more likely than the average senator to vote against his party. On the other hand, there have been a few congresses in which McCain has been far more willing to buck the party line than most.
McCain has been a fairly reliable Republican vote since entering the Senate in 1987. From 1987 to 2015, McCain voted with the Republican Party 87 percent of the time on party-line votes1 in the average Congress. The median senator during that period voted with his or her party 91 percent of the time. So McCain’s body of work in the Senate doesn’t look very maverick-y, even if he has been slightly less likely to vote with his party than the median senator. A real maverick probably looks more like Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who has voted with her party a little less than 60 percent of the time in the average Congress since she joined the Senate in 1997.
McCain has also been a fairly reliable conservative vote on important issues, which is apparent if you examine American Conservative Union scorecards from 1987 to 2015. The ACU, a right-leaning political interest group,2 issues annual scorecards for every member of Congress based on whether a senator or representative voted for what it considers the conservative position on about 20 to 25 key votes3 each year. In the average year, McCain had a conservative score of 81. That’s only slightly less than the median Republican senator’s score, 87. Indeed, many of McCain’s policy positions plant him squarely within the mainstream of the Republican Party. He is against abortion in most circumstances and is very hawkish on foreign affairs and pro gun rights.
Yet it would be a mistake to label McCain just another down-the-line Republican. While such a description was mostly accurate from 1987 to 1996, McCain’s Senate votes since then have been more difficult to characterize. This, of course, was around the time McCain was gearing up to run for president the first time, in 2000. It’s also when “McCain the maverick” storylines began to multiply. The change in McCain’s record is apparent in the percentage of times he voted with his party in each Congress compared with the median senator.
In only one Congress out of 10 since 1997 (the 105th) has McCain voted with his party more often than the median senator. Before that, he’d done so in three out of five congresses. McCain was at his most maverick-y during the early and middle part of President George W. Bush’s administration. From 2001 (107th Congress) to 2006 (109th Congress), McCain voted with his party 79 percent of the time; the median senator voted with his party 93 percent of the time. McCain’s maverick ways fell off during the early years of President Barack Obama’s administration, but McCain was, on average, 10 percentage points more likely to vote against his party than the median senator in the second half of Obama’s tenure.4
And it’s not just that McCain is voting against his party on unimportant issues: McCain has been more willing to vote against the more conservative position on key votes in the past 20 years. McCain voted against the Bush tax cuts, for reducing greenhouse emissions and for funding Obama’s executive action providing federal benefits to immigrants who are in the country illegally, in addition to arguing against torture. You can see that McCain’s transformation on key votes (again measured by the American Conservative Union’s scorecards) matches up with when he began to buck the GOP on party-line votes overall: Just before his first run for the presidency in 2000.
In terms of his overall record, McCain’s position on key votes was less maverick-y during the Obama years than the Bush years. Still, he’s been less reliably conservative compared with the median Republican senator during the Obama years than he was pre-1997.
So is it fair to say that McCain has stepped up his maverick game since the late 1990s, with a few breaks along the way? Well, not exactly. Much of McCain’s maverick image in recent years may simply be grade inflation. As polarization has taken hold, and Democrats have become more liberal and Republicans more conservative, a position that was reliably conservative 10 or 15 years ago now looks moderate. Maybe McCain didn’t change; maybe his colleagues did. Indeed, McCain has voted with his party 86 percent of the time on all party-line votes in the average Congress since 1997. That’s little different from his average of 88 percent from 1987 to 1996. But compare McCain’s slight drop in voting with his party to the rising polarization in the Senate. The median senator has voted with his or her party 93 percent of the time in the average term since 1997. From 1987 to 1996, it was 88 percent.
These diverging trends mean that McCain went from being slightly more partisan than most senators (52 percent of senators voted against their party more often than McCain from 1987 to 1996) to being among the least partisan (just 19 percent of senators have bucked their party more often than McCain from 1997 to 2015). Does this make McCain more of a maverick now than he used to be? Or is everyone else just less of a maverick? It’s tough to say.
Whether or not you view McCain as a maverick probably depends on what story you want to tell. McCain is more likely to vote against his party than most senators, but he still votes with his party the vast majority of the time. This pattern is already developing in the current Congress. In limited votes so far, McCain has voted against Trump’s position just 6 percent of the time. That’s still a higher percentage than all but two Republican senators: Susan Collins and Rand Paul. Perhaps when all the other dogs have solid-colored hair, having one spot makes one just different enough to stand out.