How John McCain can condemn Donald Trump for outrageous statements, such as those leveled at the Gold Star Khan family, but still endorse the Republican nominee for president is a fair question that’s easy to answer. It’s because he’s walked in Trump’s shoes and lived triumphantly as a politician to benefit from it.
Arizona’s senior senator and the 2008 Republican nominee for president knows a thing or two about saying stupid, incredibly cruel things, often about people who deserve better. McCain also knows it doesn’t take much for voters, especially political party faithful, to forgive, forget and elect. McCain has benefitted from Arizona voter magnanimity for 34 years as a U.S. representative and senator.
Nothing McCain has said as an elected official is as extreme as the appalling remarks Trump makes that seem only to endear him to Republican voters. But there’s a long history of McCain making offensive public comments that did little more than raise eyebrows among voters.
In 1998 for example, Sen. McCain went after then teenage Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of President Bill Clinton. “Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly?” he asked Republican fundraisers. “Because Janet Reno is her father.”
McCain would later apologize for the Chelsea remark, saying it was “insensitive and cruel and stupid.” But the pattern would continue — crude remarks, then apology and then voter approval.
Trump takes a short cut on the McCain route to election success. He doesn’t apologize.
Vicious remarks about John McCain’s time spent as a POW in Vietnam is on a long, growing list of Trump comments that range from boorish to dangerous. All call into question Trump’s fitness to be president, but none so far have stopped his astonishing scorched-earth march to the White House.
McCain, perhaps like few others, knows the treacherous 2016 campaign trail. More importantly, he understands Trump, the Republican leader on a warpath. He can either follow or be left behind in the political wilderness. There’s a question about who in his party’s base cares what he does.
And so McCain walks the walk — through shame, indignity, denial, political bile, past civilian casualties like the Khans — to re-election.