John McCain Makes His Choice

The vote he cast, more than the speech he gave, will help define his legacy.

John McCain gives a speech to the Senate after being diagnosed with brain cancer.
C-SPAN2 via AP

The effort to repeal Barack Obama’s health-care bill is not over, and neither presumably is the public career of John McCain. But each crossed an important threshold yesterday, and Senator McCain gave us a clearer idea of who he is and what he stands for.

The repeal effort isn’t over, because debate and further voting is now under way to determine whether the bill will pass and, more basically, to define what it would actually do. McCain will have more votes to cast, on this measure and others, and it’s possible that in the end he will turn against this bill because of its provisions (whatever they turn out to be) or because of the rushed and secretive process that led to it. Just this afternoon, McCain voted No on a “straight repeal” bill that would eliminate Obamacare without any replacement.

If in the end John McCain makes as decisive a stand against this proposal as he did in favor of it last night, then the historical verdict on this stage of his career will be more complex than it would be right now. At the moment the story would be that McCain, soon after his diagnosis and treatment for aggressive brain cancer, responded to this memento mori by flying back to Washington to help take medical coverage away from other people.

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.)

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John McCain himself went out of his way to highlight why his choice was so sad, and so hypocritical. As David Graham noted yesterday, McCain immediately followed his vote with one of his trademark speeches on the need to take the high road in politics—the need to stop doing things in a rushed and secretive way, to stop simply looking for partisan wins. Elevated words, of the kind McCain is accustomed to being complimented on. But the words were entirely at odds with his actions of just minutes before—when he had the chance to stop a rushed and secretive push toward a partisan win, and he whiffed. Later that same evening, just hours after he somberly declared that “I will not vote for this bill as it is today,” McCain went right ahead and voted for that bill as it was yesterday, one of only 43 Republicans to do so.

And he didn’t need to do this, any of it. What leverage does anyone have over John McCain at this stage in his life and career? Even though his mother is still alive at 105, John McCain knows that he is not going to run for another term in the senate five years from now. What primary challenge does he have to worry about? What hostile PACs or donors? What attack ads? He knows that Donald Trump wants a “win,” but what conceivable loyalty does McCain owe the man who mocked him as a loser? What does he have to fear from McConnell? What’s the evidence that if he opposed the leadership now he’d been in worse shape later on?

Given the obvious unease many of the Republicans have about voting for this unpopular measure—on the one hand, it’s what they promised, on the other hand, most of the public opposes it—might McCain actually have won their quiet gratitude, by being the one who could afford to take a hit for stopping this reckless bill? And how profoundly different would his high-road speech have sounded, had it followed a break-from-the-pack No vote?

In the actions that matter, namely the vote he cast, McCain resembled the normal down-the-line Republican senators—Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, let’s say, or John Thune of South Dakota, or Richard Shelby of Alabama. The difference is that McCain so clearly wants the press to think better of him for his “we shouldn’t do it this way” speech. Mitch McConnell can be bottomlessly hypocritical, as when complaining about Democratic “obstruction” in approving Trump nominees after his unprecedented stonewalling of Merrick Garland’s nomination. But McConnell is not asking anyone to think he’s noble. He just gets the job done.

We shouldn’t do it this way, McCain said to his colleagues, of the closed, rushed, and railroaded process that led to this bill. He was right. But it was in his power to stop it from being done this way, in an enormously consequential case, and he didn’t.