WASHINGTON: Jim Inhofe is probably the next chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee – but he definitely doesn’t want to talk about it. The Oklahoma conservative’s refusal to talk, even in private, about succeeding the ailing Sen. John McCain speaks both to Inhofe’s character and the rapidly vanishing senatorial decorum he tries to preserve.
At a Defense Writers’ Group breakfast this week, Inhofe was happy to talk about his many differences with McCain on policy (more on those below). When a reporter half-jokingly raised the prospect of him becoming chairman, however, Inhofe was quick to shut the topic down:
“I’m going to ask you all to do me a favor here: Don’t even use that word,” Inhofe said. “It’s not appropriate at this time — I’m talking about ‘chairman.'”
The topic is taboo with Inhofe even behind closed doors, sources told us. (Five independent sources spoke to us for this article on the strict condition that they not be identified in any way, given the sensitivity of the topic). Even practical aspects of preparing for a possible transition are apparently off the table.
One reason for reticence is ordinary decency, admittedly a vanishing quality in politics. No one (except reporters and rival Arizona Republican Kelli Ward) is eager to seem ghoulish by discussing who benefits from McCain’s cancer, a form of brain tumor called glioblastoma that kills the average patient in 14.6 months.
Since Senate Republican rules on term limits entitle McCain to three more years as chairman – after which Inhofe’s seniority puts him first in line for the succession, with no credible challenger we’ve heard about – the only reason McCain would leave any time soon is because of his health. (Of course, everything changes if the Democrats should win control of the Senate).
Of course, McCain is famous for his doggedness in and out of the Senate, having endured five-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war, refusing his captors’ offers of early release. So while other legislators might retire because they’re worn out by chemotherapy, McCain may have the willpower to keep going until the end. There’s also the possibility that it won’t kill him, given McCain’s legendary toughness, which would leave anyone betting on his demise looking not only ghoulish but foolish.
When Inhofe refuses to discuss succeeding McCain, however, it’s driven by ethics, say several of our sources. Inhofe is genuinely a gentleman; he truly values Senate traditions of decorum; and he sincerely thinks it’s wrong to talk about the matter.
What Inhofe will talk about, however, is policy, including where he splits from McCain. “I do disagree on a few things with McCain,” Inhofe told the Defense Writers’ Group. He doesn’t share the chairman’s recent criticism of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, for instance. In fact, Inhofe calls Mattis “a godsend” and suggested McCain’s criticism of him relates less to the secretary himself than to “a personal thing: There’s bad blood between the president and Sen. McCain.”
Nor does Inhofe share McCain’s frustration with the number of defense industry executives being nominated for top jobs in the Pentagon. While McCain has threatened to refuse any more industry nominees, Inhofe said he prefers to consider each nominee as an individual and noted that experience in industry can be relevant and helpful in a Defense Department post.
Inhofe also opposed McCain’s push for a new Base Realignment And Closure round. (BRAC didn’t make it into the final National Defense Authorization Act). While there might be cause for a BRAC round “at the appropriate time,” Inhofe told reporters, it doesn’t make sense to shut down excess infrastructure when we’re trying to grow the military and might need it. Besides, the senator said, BRACs always cost money up front and only start returning savings after several years, and the budget can’t bear the short-term cost right now.
Finally, Inhofe said in the final minutes of the breakfast discussion, he doesn’t share McCain’s ferocious approach to the massive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, which the chairman once blasted as “a scandal and a tragedy.”
“It’s a style that is not my style, but I know he’s sincere,” Inhofe said.
So, one reporter asked with a chuckle, F-35 prime contractor Lockheed Martin can relax a little when you’re “chairman?”
That’s when Inhofe replied: “Don’t even use that word.”