Paul Waldman has another take on John McCain's exaggerated "maverick" persona:
But is John McCain really a maverick? A look beyond the media's repetition of the word at McCain's actual record suggests that the answer is no. In fact, McCain is a reliable conservative, and if not a perfectly loyal Republican, at least a reasonably loyal one.
According to Congressional Quarterly's party unity scores, which track how often members of Congress side with their party on key votes, over the course of his career McCain has voted with his party 84 percent of the time—not the highest score in the Senate but hardly evidence of a great deal of independence. Similarly, the American Conservative Union gives McCain a lifetime rating of 82.3, making him a solid friend of the right's. And according to the widely respected Poole-Rosenthal rankings, McCain was the eighth-most conservative senator in the 110th Senate.
...McCain's breaks with the GOP are "high profile" precisely because the press is so eager to paint him as a maverick and rewrite a story with which they are well familiar.
Here's how it usually works. Imagine that the Democrats and Republicans have a conflict over a piece of legislation, and on both sides, party unity is fairly strong. Only a couple of senators—let's say Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine, two centrists—have decided to break with their respective parties and join the other side. Reporters will find the positions taken by these two unremarkable, since Nelson and Snowe have crossed the aisle many times before (their party unity scores are regularly in the 50s, compared to McCain's 84). The news stories that follow will still describe the story as a clash between the two parties, and Nelson and Snowe will be footnotes at best, bit players in the drama whose actions don't change the underlying news narrative.
But if John McCain decides that he will join Snowe and side with the Democrats, the story being written in the media undergoes a dramatic shift. It now becomes not a story about a conflict between the Democrats and the Republicans, but a story about a conflict between John McCain and the Republicans. He instantly becomes the lead actor in the tale, as Democrats fade into the background. His name will be in the headlines, and every article about the topic will include quotes from McCain, reminders of past breaks with his party, a quote from a representative of a conservative interest group attacking McCain, and stirring descriptions of the Arizona senator's courageous independence, political consequences be damned.
There is one other key factor to understand in the making of the "maverick" myth. Look at the times when McCain has differed with his Republican colleagues, and what you find is that in almost every case, the position held by most in the GOP was broadly unpopular with the public. Campaign finance reform, regulation of tobacco, even the Bush tax cuts (to which the public was indifferent and which McCain could hardly support, having criticized them as Bush's opponent in the 2000 presidential race)—in every case, the position McCain took put him on the right side of public opinion. So what the press calls "maverick" stands could just as easily be interpreted as highly political efforts to maintain McCain's strong popularity with the general public.
For more, see Matt Welch's McCain: The Myth of a Maverick (which Waldman annoyingly doesn't cite even though his article is titled "The Maverick Myth").