John McCain's Incongruous Speech

The Arizona senator delivered an impassioned critique of partisanship, haste, and win-at-all-costs legislation, just moments after casting a vote to debate a bill that exemplifies all three.

John McCain gives a speech to the Senate.

It was a day of contradictions for John McCain: Returning from his own sickbed, he flew into Washington to vote to open debate on a bill that could strip others of their coverage. Met with a standing ovation on the Senate floor, he was also denounced fiercely for his vote in favor of debate, which allowed the bill to move forward after Vice President Pence broke a 50-50 tie.

And then there was the speech he delivered immediately after the vote. It was a surreal moment: a stemwinder denouncing fight-for-every-inch gamesmanship, hasty procedures, closed-door wrangling, and legislation that puts partisan gain over helping citizens, delivered moments after McCain cast the deciding vote to forward a bill that embodied every one of those tendencies.

Divorced from its context, the message McCain brought was an emotional, if common, one: The Senate is broken, having lost the ability to work together, to get anything done, or to act as half of a co-equal branch of government to the president. He recalled times when the body was ruled by comity and compromise.

“It is our responsibility to preserve that, even when it requires us to do something less satisfying than winning, even when we must give a little to get a little,” he said. “Even when our efforts manage just three yards and a cloud of dust, while critics on both sides denounce us for timidity, for our failure to ‘triumph.’”

The choice of words there, and the air quotes he put around it as he spoke, seemed like a rebuke of President Trump—but also of many in the Republican Party. (Two of his GOP colleagues, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, voted against proceeding on the bill, which is why his vote was decisive.) Despite seven years of promises, and despite controlling both houses of Congress, Republicans have spent the entirety of Trump’s term so far searching for a way, any way, to repeal Obamacare. That process has repeatedly broken down and then been repaired. In the case of Tuesday’s vote, senators had to be badgered into voting to consider a bill they hadn’t been provided a chance to read. It took bullying from the president and lobbying from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And, most prominently, it required McCain himself flying in just days after a brain-cancer diagnosis to provide the Republicans enough votes just to open debate.

It would be hard to think of a more desperate effort to win partisan gain at any cost, and yet here was McCain denouncing such efforts moments after enabling one.

“Our deliberations can still be important and useful, but I think we all agree they haven’t been overburdened by greatness lately,” McCain said. “And right now, they aren’t producing much for the American people.” He returned to the same theme moments later: “We're getting nothing done, my friends. We're getting nothing done. All we've really done this year is confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Our health-care-insurance system is a mess.”

McCain isn’t wrong—everyone agrees the system is a mess. But the bills put forward do little or nothing to solve that. Every proposal so far considered would produce more than 20 million newly uninsured Americans. In a speech that seemed mostly aimed at chastising Republicans, McCain found room to blame Democrats for not joining in a compromise to fix the system, but it’s hard to see where the opposition party would fit in. Given that Republicans have so far emphasized repeal without any serious replacement, there’s no place for Democrats to compromise. McCain acknowledged that. “All we've managed to do is make more popular a policy that wasn't very popular when we started trying to get rid of it,” he said.

That was part of a broader, strident critique of McConnell’s management of the health-care process.

“We try to do this by coming up with a proposal behind closed doors in consultation with the Administration, then springing it on skeptical members, trying to convince them that it's better than nothing,” he said. “That it's better than nothing? Asking us to swallow our doubts and force it past a unified opposition—I don't think that's going to work in the end, and probably shouldn't.”

Indeed, McCain said that while he voted in favor of debate, he didn’t intend to vote for the proposal unless it changes drastically: “I will not vote for this bill as it is today. It's a shell of a bill right now. We all know that.” But he said he was voting to proceed on debate as a nod to the importance of traditional procedure.

“Let's return to regular order,” he said. “We've been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle.”

Toward the end of the speech, McCain turned to criticize Trump. He complained that the Senate was supine before the Republican president. “Whether or not we are of the same party, we are not the president's subordinates. We are his equal,” he said. In a reference to Trump’s campaign mantra, he said, “We don't hide behind walls. We bridge them.”

Those who tuned in while it was in progress might have assumed that McCain was delivering a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger speech right after casting the decisive vote to kill the repeal process. Some liberals—perhaps still recalling the glow they felt of rooting for the self-styled maverick against George W. Bush in 2000—hoped he would experience a beatific moment of conscience triumphing over partisanship, right up to the moment the Arizonan cast his yea vote.

McCain has seemed conflicted about Trump ever since the election. His antipathy toward Trump, who ridiculed his war service, is understandable. McCain has repeatedly criticized his ignorance and judgment, particularly on national-security issues. Yet he has reliably pushed forward the president’s priorities and generally stayed in line at decisive moments. The conflict between those two stances was at its most dramatic Tuesday afternoon, in the gap between McCain’s yea and his subsequent address to colleagues. Senate floor speeches can stir the heart strings. But if McCain intends to return the body to regular order, at some point, he’s actually going to have to vote to do that.