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In praise of mavericks

Mavericks are the canaries in the legislative coal mine.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) leads a confirmation hearing for the secretary of the US Army on Capitol Hill, on November 2, 2017.
Sen. John McCain on November 2, 2017.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The passing of Sen. John McCain provides a poignant moment to not only reflect on his political legacy but also reflect on the nature and value of a “maverick.” McCain’s political career was filled with a variety of seeming contradictions (such as his complicated record on torture), but two things were constant: McCain was both a Republican and, especially later in his career, willing to break with his party.

Part of why McCain was described as a maverick is because many of his most significant breaks with his party (such as on climate change, immigration, and, of course, campaign finance) were seemingly based on principle and the details of the policy itself, rather than some innate desire for “consensus” or “bipartisanship.”

Similarly, while McCain was recognized as a senator who could work “across the aisle” in pursuit of a common goal, he did not have a reputation as a dealmaker who was seen to break with his party in order simply “to get a deal done.” Indeed, as I return to below, many of McCain’s efforts (like on climate change and immigration) were ultimately unsuccessful. But because his motivations were at least seen as being based on his ideological principles, his status as a maverick was important because he conveyed information about proposed policies — even when he did not break with his party.

The informational value of the maverick

Of course, there are many reasons to be sad that Sen. McCain is no longer among us. I want to focus on why it is particularly sad for the GOP to lose a maverick. It’s not a partisan point, and indeed is not timebound: The argument applies to any party. In a busy world in which legislation and the processes by which it is produced are often opaque, mavericks are the canaries in the coal mine. Just as the miner must pause and reconsider his or her course of action when the canary dies, a voter should take notice when the maverick breaks with his or her party and ask, “Why?”

McCain’s work on climate change presents a good example of this dynamic. Between 2003 and 2007, the GOP leadership was actively opposed to climate change legislation — for example, in 2003, GOP Sen. Jim Inhofe, at the time the chair of the Senate Environment Committee, famously declared global warming to be “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” In spite of this opposition, McCain and Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman co-sponsored three ultimately unsuccessful cap-and-trade bills. McCain’s efforts might lead a voter to question the degree to which the GOP party line was truly in line with conservative principles.

Clearly, a maverick like McCain or Russ Feingold can be informative to voters on both sides of the aisle by breaking with his or her party. In addition, by demonstrating a willingness to break with the party, a maverick can be informative when he or she does not break with his or her party. Indeed, standing with one’s party is the norm for a successful maverick; breaking with the party too often can lead voters to suspect that the member’s ideological leanings are not in line with those of his or her party (see the fates of former Sens. Leiberman and Arlen Specter).

In other words, because many people believed McCain to be a principled conservative and willing to break with the GOP leadership, then when McCain supported his party on any given bill, a voter should have a stronger belief that the bill was in line with “conservative principles.’’ If McCain were not a maverick, then his support for his party’s agenda would be less informative about the content of the agenda itself.

Bipartisanship, or co-maverickship?

In a two-party system, mavericks necessarily will appear to be more “bipartisan” than other members, but it is important to keep in mind that the most informative mavericks must be at least perceived to be strong partisans. McCain’s behavior was a perfect example of this: On both climate change or campaign finance, the senator did not just partner with a Democrat — he partnered with a fellow maverick.

In both cases, McCain could rely on garnering significant (but generally less than unanimous) Democratic support. If he had simply crossed the aisle on these issues, rather than partnering with a senator known to break the Democratic leadership, he probably would have found it more difficult to secure support from his GOP colleagues. For example, when he teamed up with Sen. Ted Kennedy (and President George W. Bush) for immigration reform in 2007, their bipartisan legislation secured the support of only 12 of the 49 Republican senators and died in the Senate.

A loss for America and the GOP leadership

McCain’s passing is a loss for all Americans, but particularly for conservatives — ironically, precisely because he was an “unreliable” vote for the GOP. Losing McCain will ultimately hamper the GOP leadership’s ability to build coalitions and credibility on a host of issues. For example, in spite of the failure of the Kennedy-McCain bill, if Congress wants to tackle immigration reform, McCain’s support might have been pivotal, particularly among senators from border states.

In short, political parties and legislatures are made stronger by mavericks. Of course, mavericks are rare, almost by definition: If most incumbents have a tendency to break with their party, it eventually becomes difficult to discern what the “party line” is.

In a time when many voters are concerned about particularly concerned about holding members of Congress accountable (“draining the swamp”), the mavericks are more important than ever. In a complicated, opaque, and fast-moving policy environment, the — yes, sometimes maddening — efforts of mavericks help both voters and fellow members keep the big picture in focus.

In various ways and to varying degrees, McCain did this for more than 30 years. He will be missed.