U.S. Sen. John McCain
U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona.
Getty Images

PHOENIX – One word is sure to surface again and again as Sen. John McCain's legacy is detailed and debated.

The "maverick" label defined the Arizona Republican's rise in national politics and his first presidential campaign in 2000.

The description reflected a backstory of heroism and duty during the Vietnam War and fit McCain's efforts to lead bipartisan reforms of the campaign-finance and immigration systems. His central focus on Capitol Hill was national security, a bipartisan concern.

And he eagerly sparred with presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

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The maverick reputation suggested an independent streak that played well with some voters in his Senate and presidential runs. McCain himself would use it when it suited him politically.

But it wasn't always a comfortable fit for McCain or even accurate. The former Navy captain and Vietnam prisoner of war could be a partisan brawler and GOP team player, too, much to the exasperation of his admirers in the Democratic Party and the Washington media.

McCain distanced himself from the maverick label when it became a liability during his bid for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination and in his 2010 and 2016 Senate re-election races. But he never let it go completely, just as critics on the left would use it against him when they felt he wasn't living up to their idea of bipartisanship.

"That was a label that was given to me a long time ago," McCain said in 2010. "I don't decide on the labels that I am given. I said I have always acted in what I think is in the best interests of the state and the country, and that's the way that I will always behave."

In a 2002 memoir, Worth the  Fighting For, McCain wrote that he worried "the (maverick) act might be getting a little tired for a man of my years."

But 15 years later, at age 80, McCain settled the argument once and for all when, in the early hours of July 28, 2017, he gave a dramatic thumbs-down to GOP legislation to undo the Affordable Care Act, casting a decisive vote that stalled Republican efforts to gut Obamacare.

Three days before that vote, in a memorable July 25 Senate floor speech, delivered at the height of partisan rancor over whether to repeal or save Obama's Affordable Care Act, McCain made a passionate case for the Senate to return to regular order and the civility and camaraderie for which the upper chamber once was known.

"The most revered members of this institution accepted the necessity of compromise in order to make incremental progress on solving America’s problems and to defend her from her adversaries," McCain said in the remarks, which came less than a week after the disclosure that he was battling a deadly form of brain cancer.

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"That principled mindset and the service of our predecessors who possessed it come to mind when I hear the Senate referred to as the world’s greatest deliberative body," he said. "I’m not sure we can claim that distinction with a straight face today."

In an August 2017 interview with The Arizona Republic, McCain said he was comfortable with people remembering him as the Republican maverick, but he added this:

"I also hope that they recognize what I've done on a lot of issues, especially national defense."

Legislative contributions

John McCain
John McCain, R-Ariz., kicks back in his chair and makes a phone call while working in his Capitol Hill office in Washington D.C., during the Senate debate of the McCain-Finegold campaign-finance reform bill on March 23, 2001.
Associated Press

In the legislative arena, McCain's work on the influential Senate Armed Services Committee – he became chairman in 2015 – and on defense policy were among his most lasting contributions.

His namesake campaign-finance-reform bill, which sought to combat the pervasive influence of special-interest money in politics, became law in 2002. But the Supreme Court overturned key parts, including regulations on independent corporate and union spending on political advertising.

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Critics argued the campaign-finance law backfired and actually worsened fundraising efforts because it weakened political parties and shifted power to less accountable and more extreme third-party organizations. The law also led to the 2010 decision in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission that greatly increased the influence of corporations, unions and outside groups on elections. 

One ramification, given Congress' failure to mandate disclosure, has been that certain politically active nonprofits can hide the source of their money.

And despite years of trying, none of McCain's attempts to overhaul the immigration system became law.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., agreed that national security is a big part of McCain's legacy.

"He has really helped shape our policy for a good amount of time, a quarter-century at least, in the Senate in terms of the post-World War II liberal international order with strong U.S. leadership and security arrangements and a focus on human rights."

Former three-term Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., who served six years with McCain in the Senate from 1987 until DeConcini's 1995 retirement, said he and McCain often had ideological differences and disagreed about the use of earmarks to pay for projects for Arizona. But DeConcini said he always respected McCain's military service in the Navy.

More recently, DeConcini said he admired the way that McCain was willing to stand up to Trump, his own party's president.

McCain and Trump battled publicly almost from the time Trump launched his presidential campaign in summer 2015. McCain eventually withdrew his endorsement of Trump in October 2016 after a vulgar recording surfaced of Trump talking about women.

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"I considered him a maverick," DeConcini said of McCain. "He went on his own trajectory on issues. He would not always support the Republican position, though he also could be very partisan, ... but that's understandable.

"I give him great credit for taking on Trump, not just because I am no fan of Trump's, but because that is really a courageous thing to do," DeConcini said.

'Maverick' candidate in 2000

McCain's presidential runs in 2000 and 2008 elevated him in the national consciousness.

During McCain's first bid for the Republican presidential nomination, Americans became acquainted with his personal story of being shot down over North Vietnam in 1967 and spending more than five years as a prisoner of war. McCain, the son and grandson of Navy admirals, refused early release because the military code of conduct demanded that POWs accept release only in the order in which they were captured.

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McCain's scrappy, upstart 2000 presidential campaign and its reform platform were given little chance of victory but managed to throw the GOP establishment into a panic after his surprise upset of then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary. 

Anti-McCain forces descended on South Carolina to halt his momentum ahead of that state's primary. In a brutal contest that has entered the lore of U.S. political history, his opponents waged an all-out effort that included, in some cases, outlandish and vicious smears of McCain and his family.

"I will not take the low road to the highest office in this land," McCain said after his South Carolina loss. "I want the presidency in the best way, not the worst way."

Though McCain carried on to Michigan and Arizona, his campaign was mortally wounded.

But even in defeat, he inspired some in his party.

"His run in 2000 was kind of the first inkling of the ability to run in an unorthodox way," said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who would run for president in 2016. "That was an unorthodox campaign against a favorite who ended up winning, but Sen. McCain, without any of the trappings of a traditional campaign front-runner, really gave future President Bush a run for his money."

McCain and Bush remained at odds after Bush moved into the White House in 2001, with McCain famously opposing the GOP president's signature tax cuts in 2001 and 2003.

Establishment GOP pick in 2008

After his experience in 2000, McCain had reinvented himself as the GOP-establishment favorite by the time he launched his 2008 presidential campaign seven years later.

But financial troubles nearly upended his machine, and by summer 2007 McCain was running on a tight budget, preaching the need for victory in the unpopular Iraq War while stumping at town-hall-style events in Veterans of Foreign Wars meeting halls and similar venues all over Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

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"I'd rather lose a campaign than lose a war," McCain would say of the risk that his Iraq War stance posed to his political prospects.

In what was seen as a major comeback, McCain won the GOP nomination over rivals such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

As the party's nominee, McCain picked "Country First" as his slogan. But few political experts gave him much of a chance at defeating Democratic nominee Barack Obama – a fresh and exciting figure in U.S. politics – given the profound unpopularity of Bush and the war, and the financial crisis that threatened to wreck the economy.

In the end, McCain's attempt to revive the "maverick" brand didn't changes voters' perceptions. His campaign and foreign policy were painted as extensions of Bush's presidency, and it stuck.

Whether his pick of then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, chosen to help shore up the conservative base that distrusted him, hurt or helped remains a matter of debate. But some blame McCain's choice of Palin for the rise of right-wing populism that eventually led to Trump's election in 2016.

"One, Barack Obama was a very, very strong candidate, and that's the most important thing," McCain told The Republic in an interview in August 2017. "Second, when the stock market collapsed, it really sent us into a real drop. Third of all, I guess Americans were ready for a change, too.

"But I'd like to emphasize the first thing I said: Barack Obama was an incredibly impressive candidate, and he did a great job campaigning," he said.

For some hard-right Republicans, McCain didn't hit Obama, the first African-American nominee of a major party, hard enough or often enough out of what they considered a fear of being tagged a racist.

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McCain declined to make an issue of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's former pastor in Chicago who had made a string of controversial political statements in his fiery sermons, including rejecting the slogan "God Bless America" for "God Damn America." 

In another memorable moment, McCain corrected a woman at a town hall meeting who said she couldn't trust Obama because he was "an Arab."

"No, ma'am. He's a decent, family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. And that's what this campaign is all about," McCain said.

McCain's honorable campaigning seems quaint when viewed through the lens of Trump's 2016 scorched-earth assault on his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. Just eight years after McCain received the party's nomination, Republicans would chant "Lock her up!" at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

But Rubio recalled McCain's exchange with the woman who said Obama was an Arab as "an iconic moment" in presidential campaign history.

"In the process of running in the 2008 election, there were multiple moments in that campaign where you saw him elevate above the moment and refuse to go in a direction that perhaps some wanted him to go," Rubio said. "It was a testament to his character."

Stature, seniority on Capitol Hill