Is the Maverick back?

A few observations of a Democratic campaign strategist dropped into a Republican Awards Dinner.

Last night I attended the International Republican Institute’s Freedom Dinner in Washington, DC. Don’t worry — I have no plans to switch sides, but the kindness of a friend’s invitation along with the promise of a well-stocked open bar beckoned me.

Channeling my inner Nancy Reagan, I donned a blue suit, brown loafers and my most conservative tie, a dinner uniform that would let me slip unnoticed into the background.

Now the International Republican Institute or IRI was founded in 1983 as a “nonprofit, nonpartisan organization committed to advancing freedom and democracy worldwide.” Each year the organization hosts an annual awards dinner to honor Republican luminaries and previous awardees include President George H.W. Bush, Secretary James Baker, First Lady Laura Bush, and General Colin Powell. For this partisan Democrat, these honorees actually represent a number of principled Republicans.

With near-hourly Trump Administration scandals breaking, this dinner became even more interesting. In a room filled with “establishment” Republicans, what would the mood be? Somber? Energized? Hopeful?

This year’s awardee was John McCain, who was being recognized for his lifetime of service advancing democratic causes across the globe. In 2008, I worked as hard as I could to make sure he wasn’t the 44th President of the United States — not because he was an immoral or unprincipled leader, but because the alternate candidate shared my hopes, dreams and views for the future. No hard feelings, Sen. McCain. In his introduction, Sen. Lindsay Graham (self-described “best buddy” and “amigo”) described his friend’s work traveling to places like Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq as instrumental in shining a light on human rights abuses and government corruption: all good things.

After the award was handed to Sen. McCain, he began his remarks with the clearest condemnation of totalitarian regimes I have ever heard. He described Putin as a “war criminal” and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak as a former “KGB thug,” and the Republican crowd applauded.

The event was hosted at the Willard Hotel, literally steps from the White House, and for a brief moment I felt a real sense of assurance to hear these words in the shadow of the current administration.

After his acceptance speech, McCain sat down with veteran newsman, Bob Schieffer, for an impromptu edition of “Face the Nation.” When asked by Schieffer about how our present situation compares to previous scandals, McCain was clear, “We’ve seen this movie before. It’s reaching Watergate size and scale…this is not good for the country.”

The maverick was back and in rare form last night.

The press is readily reporting on McCain’s comments, but I can tell you as an attendee last night, that his words were met with strong approval in that room. McCain was calm and collected as he compared Trump’s recent actions to his predecessor’s during the Watergate crisis. It was premeditated and clear.

We need this McCain, now more than ever, to continue to demand accountability from this administration and he must take it a step further and use his position to advocate for a special prosecutor. The Senator from Arizona and his South Carolinian “amigo” can be true statesmen again by continuing what was started last night — putting the good of the republic ahead of blind party loyalty.

Go mavericks!