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Since the inauguration, McCain has emerged as one of the leading critics of President Obama. Illustration by Matt Wuerker

John McCain, critic-in-chief?

POLITICO

By JONATHAN MARTIN & MANU RAJU | 12/11/09 12:17 AM EST

Barack Obama began his presidency with an open hand toward the man he had just defeated in a race that was at times bitter.

“There are few Americans who understand this need for common purpose and common effort better than John McCain,” said Obama at an inauguration-eve tribute dinner to his former foe.

But in the year since that evening of comity and collegiality, McCain has emerged as one of the leading critics of the new president. On foreign policy, his traditional area of expertise, and domestic affairs, where McCain has shown new passion, the 72-year-old Arizonan is making it plain that he has no plans to serve out his years in the rank-and-file, as a politician known more for what he lost than what he will yet accomplish.

For years, McCain relished being an outsider and a maverick, a style that often led to battles with his own party’s leadership. Today, for reasons that friends and McCain observers say could range from unresolved anger to concern for his right flank as he seeks re-election to genuine dismay about Obama’s agenda, he is helping lead a fiery crusade of GOP loyalists against Democratic priorities – and irked some of his Democratic colleagues in the process.

“The same ferocity he had about beating on Republicans … is now being focused on people on the other side whose agenda is really overreaching,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of McCain’s closest friends in the Senate. “He has every reason to be upset. There’s no change there. What would have been a change was if he wasn’t pissed off.”

“He is now the de facto leader of the Republican Party.”

Because of his Senate platform, longtime fame and a relative dearth of high-wattage Republicans, McCain has become something close to an opposition leader in the Obama era: There he is on the Senate floor denouncing Democrats’ health care plans; there he is on “Meet the Press,” offering the GOP response to the administration’s Afghanistan policy; and there he is back down in South Carolina, holding another town hall meeting with Graham as though the race never ended and the Straight Talk Express is still gassed up and ready to go.

“The first year has been like an extension of the presidential campaign in many ways,” said John Weaver, formerly one of McCain’s closest advisers.

Democrats argue that McCain has marched to the right, pointing to his opposition to Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court after years of trying to avoid battles on judicial nominations; his damaging criticism of the Democrats’ climate change plans when he was an early supporter of cap-and-trade legislation; his attacks on AARP when he actively sought the powerful lobby’s support in the 2008 campaign.

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There’s one positive political aspect to this epic fight for health care reform. We now know for sure which congressional Democrats have to be vigorously challenged and defeated the next time they come up for re-election.

The health care reform debate has forced the toxic slag to gurgle to the surface and consequently revealed a few Democratic senators who, at every turn in this process, have proved to be far more interested in protecting their own asses by way of protecting the asses of their bosses in the health care mafia.

Suffice to say, Joe Lieberman has to be sending lots of “thank you” gift baskets and ponies and backrubs to the offices of Max Baucus and Kent Conrad. In fact, Baucus and Conrad — the matchstick men of health care reform — have been so insufferable, I almost forgot about Lieberman. Almost.

In fact, apart from the Republicans from whom we expected outlandish lies and cartoonish behavior, Baucus and Conrad have been much more obstructionist and damaging to real health care reform, chiefly because they possess a disproportionate level of power in relation to the nine people in the upper Midwest they represent, and because their ideas would be laughable if they weren’t so ineffectual and dangerous.

To wit: Baucus Plan is just as craptastical as we all suspected it might be.

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