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The Elephant in the Room: Surprised by Sen. McCain

Despite the potential, he and Obama have locked horns on virtually every issue.

Often wrong, but never in doubt. It's a phrase that was hurled my way a time or two when I was a U.S. senator. It's also an apt synopsis of a column I wrote about John McCain at the beginning of this year.

A week before Barack Obama's inauguration, there was no doubt in my mind that McCain would be the new president's most important ally in the Senate.

The reasons were clear: McCain needed to get himself back into the good graces of the media. Helping Obama succeed was the way. The young new president, meanwhile, would nobly embrace his old vanquished foe and thereby pass his three signature programs - economic stimulus, cap and trade, and health-care reform - with large, bipartisan majorities.

The alliance would cement their places in history. Each would seal his legacy as a transformational, post-partisan figure. That's what McCain had often been in the Senate (but not on the 2008 campaign trail) and what Obama promised to be on the 2008 campaign trail (but had never been in the Senate).

It would be easy, too. Obama and McCain agreed on many big issues - immigration, Gitmo, global warming.

So I wrote without a doubt that McCain would not only work with Obama on the issues they agreed on, but would also "forge common ground on a long list of initiatives that go far beyond where he has gone before, including the stimulus package."

Wrong! McCain did not only oppose Obama on the stimulus package; he led the fight against the $800 billion addition to our national debt, labeling it "an act of generational theft."

McCain also opposed Obama's next major legislative initiative, an omnibus appropriations bill that was 8 percent larger than last year's and loaded with congressional earmarks, which McCain tried to kill.

McCain voted against almost all of Obama's controversial executive appointments as well.

Obama's climate-change plan? McCain called it an "irresponsible, ill-conceived, and distorted version of a cap-and-trade system" and "a giant government slush fund that will further burden our businesses and consumers."

Health-care reform? McCain said last month that a Congressional Budget Office analysis of the plan "should be a wake-up call for all of us to scrap the current bill and start over ... in a true bipartisan fashion."

Even on Gitmo, McCain said Obama was making a "terrible mistake" because he didn't have a plan for what to do with the prisoners. "I'm for closing Guantanamo," McCain said. "But I'm for a comprehensive solution. ..." In recent weeks, he's also blasted Obama's response to the Iranian election and the Honduran coup.

With allies like McCain, Obama hardly needs adversaries.

So how could I have been so wrong? I overestimated McCain's desire to return to the media's good graces. The fact is that he has not wavered one bit from his past stances on issues to curry favor with anyone.

So, to my friend John McCain: I apologize for being so cynical about your intentions.

I also misjudged President Obama. I assumed he would at least try to live up to his post-partisan rhetoric by sincerely reaching out to McCain and other moderate Republicans to enact legislation with bipartisan majorities. He had all of the cards. He just had to play them.

Instead, Obama chose not to lead. He abdicated his responsibility to propose specific legislation to Congress. He let House Speaker Nancy Pelosi craft his policies.

Obama also has turned out to be a far more doctrinaire liberal in office than he was on the campaign trail. All this made for bad legislation (the stimulus), bad politics (taxing energy during a recession), and bad public relations (misrepresenting what is in his health-care bill).

It's not too late, though. If Obama can persuade Harry Reid and Pelosi to deal the Arizona senator in, I still believe McCain could be Obama's senatorial ace in the hole, as we just witnessed in the battle over funding the F-22. Of that I have no doubt.