John McCain Wasn’t The Hero We Needed

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Win McNamee/Getty Images

By ABE ASHER

The Republican plan to strip millions of people of their health care and transfer the millions of dollars saved to the top one percent, like a cockroach, will not die.

On Tuesday morning in Washington, this grotesque effort was saved in dramatic fashion by John McCain, who, returning to the floor of the Senate for the first time since his brain cancer diagnosis last week, cast the deciding vote on the bill’s motion to proceed.

It was a walk-off win for Mitch McConnell, President Trump, and the bulk of the Senate GOP on step one of the final hurdle to killing the Affordable Care Act — and, for an American political icon, a surreal career-defining moment.

What came next was even odder: McCain followed his vote with a rousing address to the Senate in which he vowed not to vote for the full implementation bill as it currently stands. Six hours later, he voted for that too.

In total, McCain — six days after his diagnosis and just two weeks after undergoing surgery — flew back to Washington to vote to begin deliberations on the bill, announced he would vote against the final version of the bill, and then voted for the final version of the bill.

And if the first vote was a crucial tiebreaker to spare his party the embarrassment of losing a floor vote, the second vote, on the replacement plan spearheaded by a Ted Cruz-offered amendment and known as the BCRA, was needless.

That version of the bill needed 60 votes to pass. It got just 53. Nine Republicans — including McCain’s longtime Senate sidekick Lindsey Graham — opposed it.

So why did McCain support it? Outside of the arena of foreign policy, where he believes we should be at war, with everyone, forever, McCain is not particularly a policy wonk. Health care isn’t his issue.

It’s possible that the reason McCain came back to Washington has very little to do with health care at all. McCain is sticking around the Senate for several more days to marshall the debate over — surprise — a defense spending authorization bill that he holds dear.

And yet the BCRA vote and the Save the Senate speech tell a different story. McCain is 80 years old. He was re-elected in November. He has no more campaigns to run. What is his aim?

The truth is that McCain showed up on Tuesday because he wanted to, because no matter its sin against him, McCain has always come home to the Republican Party.

He came around to embracing George Bush, despite every reason not to. He embraced Donald Trump, despite every reason not to. And he flew five hours across the country with a scar over his right eye and a tumor in his brain to support this bill despite every reason not to.

And for what? McConnell is a leech. Paul Ryan is an ideologue. No one has any expectations for them.

McCain, on the other hand, knows better. He has always talked a good game. What’s more, he had the blessing of reaching the height of his popularity at a time when his party — and then his country — needed saving.

McCain, at times, seemed to vaguely grasp that those were his charges. He was a thorn in the GOP’s side in the early 2000s, opposing the Bush tax cuts and helping save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from drilling. But his ambition to be president eventually quieted his independent streak.

McCain was obviously uncomfortable with the racist undertones — and then overtones — of his 2008 presidential campaign, and tried in the end to quell them.

He spent the first several months of the Trump administration jetting around the world like a man who knew he was on borrowed time, trying to convince anyone and everyone who would listen that America would not abandon its democratic principles.

But when push has come to shove, McCain has almost always whimpered instead of roared. That doesn’t make him worse than any other Republican congressperson. It just makes him exponentially more disappointing.

McCain was not the hero we needed. Perhaps he was the hero that we — or the Republican party, at the very least — deserved.

Not that he’ll see it that way. It seems that McCain has bought his own duplicity. It took remarkable gall — or delusion, take your pick — to give the speech he gave ten minutes after a vote that invalidated much, if not all, of what he was saying.

Nothing that McCain said in his address was particularly wrong — save for the gross mischaracterization that the Affordable Care Act, passed with almost 150 Republican amendments, was driven through without opposition party consultation.

But his criticism of the Senate’s partisanship, its lack of discourse across party lines, its increasing break from institutional norms, was laughable.

Motions to proceed, for instance, were once rare in the Senate. It was mostly understood that all bills deserved to come to the floor to be debated.

But when McConnell became minority leader, motion to proceed votes became more and more common — and McCain, guardian of Senate decorum, frequently voted against those motions when the Democrats were in power.

This is a politician has voted with Donald Trump more than 90 percent of the time. He voted to confirm every one of Trump’s cabinet nominees, save the one — budget director Mick Mulvaney, who dared propose cuts in the defense budget.

When he and his team were in the final stages of choosing a running mate in 2008, McCain, apparently, wanted Joe Liberman. Instead he signed off on Sarah Palin.

So don’t doubt that McCain meant what he said in his speech. I’ll bet he really does want a better politics. Just understand that, as usual, he signed off on less.

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