This past Monday, the Gate sat down with Senator John McCain, a veteran, senator, and two-time presidential candidate, to discuss his fears about American politics, the importance of friendship, and his disdain for being called a moderate. Like many conservative commentators today, McCain voiced his concerns about the triviality and ephemerality of much of the political grandstanding in Washington—something unusual enough to rattle even a politician with his experience.
The Gate: What do you find most destructive about the increasing lack of faith in government institutions?
John McCain: Well ultimately, if people lose enough faith in government, they’re going to want another kind of government. I don’t see that happening in America, but we should be alarmed when the overall approval rating of Congress is at 12 percent. David [Axelrod] and I were just talking about the fact that in the ‘60s, ‘70s, [and] ‘80s, the approval rating for Congress was in the 60th percentiles. Now we’re down to 12, but you can’t blame people for that. People were so badly hurt by this shutdown that they don’t understand why in the world we should shut down government and hurt their lives. What, because we can’t work together? So a lot of it is understandable, and part of it also is that we’ve been through the longest and most difficult recession since the Great Depression. That has harmed a lot of people’s lives, and made a lot of people angry with government.
Gate: How is it still possible to significantly weaken the influence of organized money in politics?
McCain: The biggest mistake that I think the Supreme Court has made in my lifetime is the Citizens United decision…. It will lead to corruption, and there will be scandal, and it will have to do with money that is poured into some campaign that no one really knows about. There’s too much unaccounted-for money that is washing around elections today. There will be a scandal and then there will be a reform. Throughout our history that has been the history of our political campaign system. Teddy Roosevelt was one of my heroes who was against the “malefactors of great wealth,” and enacted reforms. We’re going to have to do that again. I can’t tell you how disappointed I am in the United States Supreme Court that said that money is now free speech. Well if money is now free speech, then the wealthiest people speak the loudest. That’s not the principle of the foundation of our nation.
Gate: Do you feel the Senate, and perhaps Congress as a whole, operates in cliques and small factions too instinctively?
McCain: I don’t think so. I think that there is a group of members of the House who are wedded to certain positions because their constituencies are. Thanks to redistricting we have people who are in overwhelmingly Democrat or overwhelmingly Republican districts, and that makes them less flexible in their positions and willingness to compromise. What many of us advocate is to go back to the days of Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan said two things that are important: one, the eleventh commandment is [that] you don’t speak ill of your fellow Republicans. And the second thing he said was, “If a fella is with me 80 percent of the time, then I’m with him.”
Gate: What kinds of personal contact are necessary to fix the communicative gaps in Washington?
McCain: I think personal contact means a lot. For example, Senator Dick Durbin, one of the senators here in Illinois, who has been a colleague of mine for many years…. Dick and I approach our relationship with a mutual trust because we’ve known each other. Personal relationships are important, and they help people find common ground. He’s a Democrat, somewhat left of center. I’m a Republican, and the fact is that we’ve been able to come together on a number of issues. One of the reasons for that is because we have mutual trust.
Gate: Do you see it as your responsibility as a more moderate Republican—relative to some in Congress—to reign in some of the more extreme elements of your party that were perhaps inspired by your 2008 presidential ticket?
McCain: I don’t consider myself as moderate. I am a conservative Republican. My voting record clearly indicates that. Willingness to reach across the aisle—I don’t think [that] means moderate, very frankly. But I do think that the experience that I have had over the years, if we want to reach goals, has got to do with reaching common ground, and you don’t have to compromise principle. You can uphold your principles and yet reach agreement with the other side, and some people think those are mutually exclusive. They are not. So with the years that I have spent [in Congress], I have found that there are some people that I can trust to not betray their principles, but also reach an agreement that is for the good of the country.
Gate: Do you think that your military experience gives you a certain kind of perspective on the triviality of political infighting?
McCain: I think the military experience has given me the opportunity to appreciate the service of the men and women in the military more than anything else. I wasn’t a very good midshipman at the Naval Academy; in fact, I was a disciplinary problem. So I can’t say it was my sterling military record that qualified me. But I can say that probably the most rewarding part of my life was when I was in prison with some real genuine American heroes who inspired me then, and continue to inspire me to this day.
Watch a part of McCain’s interview below.