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McCain Blends Instinct With Political Calculation

September 22, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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In the first of a series of reports on the leadership qualities of the presidential candidates, Judy Woodruff talks to colleagues of Sen. John McCain about how the GOP hopeful makes decisions and how his governing style would translate in the White House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To understand how Senator John McCain makes decisions, a good place to begin is his vice presidential pick.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: Don’t you think we made the right choice for the next vice president of the United States?

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Arizona senator’s decision to choose a first-term governor of Alaska over personal favorites, like independent Democrat Joe Lieberman, or more familiar figures, involved both politics and instinct, says senior campaign adviser South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), South Carolina: Senator Lieberman was a potential choice. But every Republican operative was saying, “No, don’t go down that road; it’d divide the party.”

He had his old buddy, Tom Ridge, who he just loves, and respects, and adores, but he’s pro-choice. That would have created a conflict.

John wanted to make a statement with his pick. And when he looked at Governor Palin, he saw in her a bit of himself. He wants to let the American people know that, if he gets to be president, buckle your seats, because we’re going to do things different.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Graham, a close friend of McCain’s, insists it was a calculated move and not a spontaneous roll of the dice.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: I’m not so sure it was impulse, certainly from his gut. John knows what he wants to do when he gets to be president.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I’ve been called a maverick. Now we have a team of mavericks that’s going to…

JUDY WOODRUFF: McCain has long been described as a maverick, a title he’s happy to brandish. As evidence, he touts his work with Democrats on issues like campaign finance and immigration reform. McCain staffers describe a boss who makes decisions outside of partisan pressures.

MARK BUSE, Chief of Staff, McCain Senate Office: He has a concept of party. He believes in his party, but he’s more than happy to cross the aisle. And he does it all the time to the anguish of those who demand party unity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark Buse is McCain’s Senate office chief of staff. Buse started working for the senator 17 years ago as an intern.

MARK BUSE: The Senate leadership used to get very frustrated with him when they would do their whip checks, their vote counts in advance of votes. He wouldn’t answer. He wouldn’t give an answer. His answer would be, “I’ll vote how I want to vote.” He wouldn’t let them count his vote necessarily.

He doesn’t do the daily attendance check.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What’s that?

MARK BUSE: In the Senate, every morning, they check to see what numbers are there so that they know what might happen. We don’t respond to that. While he respects the leadership, he respects their jobs, he’s not there to serve them.

McCain favors intuition over debate

Former Sen. Gary Hart
On a scale of pure intuitive, pure impulsive versus pure cerebral, pure analytical, I'm putting him very much on the former end.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Republican Jon Kyl, the other Arizona senator, has known McCain for over 20 years and says much of McCain's decision-making style can be attributed to his military experience.

SEN. JON KYL (R), Arizona: I think, partly as a result of his background in the United States Navy and partly because of his personality and his disposition, John goes a lot on instincts. He's peripatetic. He covers a lot of ground in a short period of time.

And so he's not one to sit around, and ponder, and wring his hands, and try to figure out what the right thing is. He's got an idea right off, and then he'll take advice from his advisers, his staff, and others around him, but he makes a judgment relatively quickly, sticks with it, doesn't look back.

And in that sense, he's a leader that bases a lot of what he decides on his instinct, on his judgment, and his sense of what's right and wrong and proper.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As an example, Kyl points to an international crisis that flared between Russia and the Republic of Georgia.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Today, we are all Georgians.

SEN. JON KYL: John McCain immediately had an idea of what was right and wrong. He immediately had a view about what should be said about it in criticism of the Russian invasion, and he did it. He didn't get any advice from advisers on that. That was pure John McCain.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In his book, "Worth the Fighting For," McCain himself describes his instinctive approach.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: As a politician, I am instinctive, often impulsive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: McCain goes on to say, "I don't torture myself over decisions. I make them as quickly as I can, quicker than the other fellow, if I can. Often, my haste is a mistake, but I live with the consequences without complaint."

But that quick-to-decide approach gives pause to some. Former Colorado Democratic Senator Gary Hart, a one-time presidential candidate himself, befriended McCain when McCain was the Navy liaison to the Senate. Hart later served as a groomsman in John and Cindy McCain's wedding.

FORMER SEN. GARY HART (D), Colorado: On a scale of pure intuitive, pure impulsive versus pure cerebral, pure analytical, I'm putting him very much on the former end.

Now, he's a smart guy or he wouldn't be where he is, but I don't think -- I think he'd be the first to say he's not a rocket scientist or a pure analytical brain, if you will. I think he, John, reacts to things.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hart says he has great respect for McCain but is supporting Barack Obama for president.

GARY HART: I have hesitation, probably would have were John McCain a Democrat, about a personality in the Oval Office who is more impulsive and intuitive, if you will, than analytical and thoughtful.

Now, John McCain is not seat-of-the-pants. I'm not -- I don't want to give the impression that he just -- whatever he had for breakfast makes the decision of going to war.

It's not quite like that. But I think, again, on a scale, I'd prefer somebody who's a little more thoughtful, a little less impulsive, and a little more analytical.

Emotion wrapped with work-style

Sen. Lindsey Graham
Republicans were afraid that Iraq was going to cost us in the next election, 2008. And when he said, 'I'd rather lose a campaign than a war,' he meant it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Long-time Congress-watcher Norman Ornstein worked alongside Senator McCain on campaign finance legislation.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: John McCain is a fighter pilot. A lot of his persona comes from being a fighter pilot.

This is a man who not only constantly questions authority, but is fond of making last-minute, from-the-gut, impulsive, risk-taking decisions, and believing to his bones that there may be a risk here, but it will pay off.

An impulsive decision-making style is fine if you're riding a jet. An impulsive decision-making style is fine if you're piloting a jet in combat. It's fine if you're a senator where the consequences are not going to be that long-lasting. It's a real question mark when you move into the presidency.

JUDY WOODRUFF: McCain's sometimes passionate personality has led some to call him a hothead. Stories of McCain's temper are legendary, charges staff members dismiss.

MARK BUSE: He's passionate, especially if you want to have a debate with him over an issue that he cares about. He will fight for the issues.

And, you know, is that the most collegial of things to do in the United Sates Senate, the greatest old-boys club in this country? No. It upsets people.

They expect this deference. He doesn't always do that. And he gets passionate, and he will speak out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Others who know McCain well say it's his convictions and sense of duty that drive his emotions.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: He has an amazing ability to be very human, get upset, get mad when people do things he thinks are out of bounds, but never lose what's most important to the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But there have been times when McCain has been less willing to let go of his anger.

In 1994, the Arizona Republic published an editorial cartoon mocking Cindy McCain's acknowledged addiction at the time to prescription drugs. McCain refused to speak to his hometown newspaper for a long time after, says Arizona Republic reporter Dan Nowicki.

DAN NOWICKI, The Arizona Republic: McCain cut off all communication with the paper for over a year. There is a part of McCain that's very emotional.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On the campaign trail, the decision McCain has made his signature was his support two years ago for adding 30,000 troops in Iraq, what has come to be called the surge.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: This strategy is succeeding. If we had withdrawn six months ago, I'd look you in the eye and tell you, "I know that al-Qaida would have said we've beat the United States of America."

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: We're in a room about the surge. In 2006, the Iraq war is at the bottom in terms of public approval. Our campaign is in trouble.

In July of 2007, we were fifth in a four-person race. We'd run out of money; we'd hit a wall. Republicans were afraid that Iraq was going to cost us in the next election, 2008. And when he said, "I'd rather lose a campaign than a war," he meant it.

Vietnam influences Iraq thinking

Dan Nowicki
Arizona Republic
[H]e can't hide the fact that he's just not inspired by some...issues. And so that may be a cause for concern about him delegating on issues where he's not personally invested in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: William Cohen, former secretary of defense, who was the best man in John McCain's second wedding, says McCain's Vietnam and prisoner of war experiences taught him the gravity of war, but that McCain's strong feelings about keeping a U.S. military presence in Iraq may also be colored by that experience.

WILLIAM COHEN, Former Secretary of Defense: I think John had always felt that the U.S. gave up too soon, that that war, quote, "could have been won." That was his view, that it was a political decision, not a military one, that resulted in the perceived loss.

I think he still feels that way about Iraq. And so there's definitely a connection there, in terms of staying the course, not yielding too quickly, trying to stabilize a region so it can function on some level. I think that there's definitely a connection in that experience.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: America is divided about this war. Obviously, we're badly divided. But no Americans are divided in our support for the men and women who are serving in the military today.

Thank you for your support of them, and God bless them, and keep them safe.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Some McCain observers say he so immerses himself in foreign affairs he pays less attention to issues he's not as passionate about.

DAN NOWICKI: McCain may have a problem in the sense that, on issues where he's not really interested in, you know, on stuff like foreign policy, when you see him in the debate, he just lights up and turns on.

And then, when other issues that he's not interested in come up, you can just tell he's -- you know, he can't hide the fact that he's just not inspired by some of these issues.

And so that may be a cause for concern about him delegating on issues where he's not personally invested in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With all eyes on the economy right now, McCain has been at pains to prove he is interested in and on top of economic issues, an area he earlier said was not his strong suit.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I promise reforms to prevent the kind of wild speculation that could put our markets at risk and has already inflicted such enormous damage across our economy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In an interview on CBS's "60 Minutes" last night, McCain insisted he not only understands the economy, he knows how to fix it.