There’s still time. But yesterday was important, for the bill and for McCain.
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Not even U.S. senators are often in a position where just one of them, strictly on his or her own, can directly affect the welfare of tens of millions of people. John McCain was in that position yesterday. By definition, in a vote this close, every vote is the “decisive” one. But McCain built drama by holding his vote until the very end. He wanted to take center stage. And he did so—by voting Yes, to let this bill proceed.
He voted to keep alive a bill opposed not by some but by all major medical-professional and health-related groups. A bill that an organization of nuns called “the most harmful legislation to American families in our lifetimes." A bill with absolutely no across-the-aisle Democratic amendments, as compared with well over 100 Republican amendments in the original Obamacare plan, and with virtually no open hearings or debates. A bill whose support level in opinion polls is roughly half that of Donald Trump himself. A bill—well, the litany is familiar, all leading up to the point that it’s a bill that John McCain could have chosen to stop yesterday, and didn’t.
If he had stayed home in Arizona, the bill would have died. If he had voted No, at least this effort at repeal would have ended. Of course, perhaps Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could have squeezed either Susan Collins or Lisa Murkowski, the two Republican defectors, to switch their votes, so he could still eke out a 50-50 tie, allowing Mike Pence to make it 51-50. Perhaps if McConnell had failed yesterday, he would have kept looking for some other way to get an anti-Obamacare “win,” despite the distortion the crusade is causing in everything else the Senate has to do. Perhaps McCain thought he was saving his influence within the GOP for later—later stages of deliberation on this bill, later encounters with Trump. Perhaps, perhaps. For certain, McCain made a choice yesterday, and he did something no one looking back on this moment will admire.
(Whenever I hear about politicians saving influence “for later,” I cannot help thinking of the unfortunate Ricky Ray Rector, the man whose name is a shorthand for the most heartless thing Bill Clinton did in his drive for the presidency. Rector was a murderer who tried to blow his own brains out when about to be captured by police. He survived but with profound mental disabilities. An Arkansas jury nonetheless convicted him and sentenced him to death; the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his case. Young Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, then in a very tight contest in the Democratic primaries of 1992, and all too aware that only four years earlier Michael Dukakis had been badly hurt by a “soft on crime,” Willie Horton race-baiting campaign, approved the execution and went to Little Rock to be in the state when it occurred. When Rector was offered a last meal before being put to death, he told the jailers that he wanted to save his dessert “for later.” When politicians talk about “saving” their influence, this for later is what I hear.)