After Donald Trump implied Ted Cruz’s wife was ugly and accused his father of helping to kill President John F. Kennedy, Cruz still worked the phones for him. Trump humiliated “liddle” Marco Rubio, who endorsed Trump anyway. Trump implied Ben Carson was a child molester, and then appointed him to his cabinet. Trump ran a campaign in which he exhorted audiences to call for Hillary Clinton’s imprisonment, and she showed up to his inauguration. Trump rose to prominence by questioning whether the first black president was even American, and won the opportunity to destroy a huge part of that president’s legacy.
All of that made former First Lady Michelle Obama’s memorable line about going high when the other side goes low seem dangerously naive. Trump belittled, humiliated, threatened, and smeared his opponents (and sometimes his supporters) nearly every day since the beginning of his candidacy for president. His opponents appealed to precedent, to norms, to comity, and to decency. Today, Trump sits in the White House.
So when Republican Senator John McCain returned from a diagnosis of brain cancer for the debate over repealing the Affordable Care Act, the warm embrace that Democrats offered their colleague seemed like yet another example of their party fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of politics and power. McCain entered the chamber to applause, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey rushed to embrace him. McCain excoriated partisanship in the Senate, and then backed a procedural motion on a bill that had been hidden from the public, crafted in secret, and created without Democratic input. Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut was widely mocked for opining that McCain’s speech was more important than his vote. Republicans were practicing Muay Thai, while Democrats were still doing Tae Bo.
McCain’s speech was covered breathlessly in much of the political press, including a number of stories with extraordinarily overwrought and dramatic descriptions of what had just happened. The Senate was about to vote on legislation that might result in tens of millions of people losing their health insurance. Millions of lives and livelihoods hung in the balance. McCain had made it all possible by returning to cast a crucial vote. The speech seemed quite unimportant by comparison.
Then early on Friday morning, as the moment neared for a crucial vote on the last of the Republican proposals for repealing all or part of the Affordable Care Act neared, McCain went against his party. Along with Senators Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, he denied the Republicans the bare majority they needed for a partial repeal that would have led to 16 million fewer people being insured.
While it might have been a long shot given her earlier votes, Republicans might have still salvaged Murkowski's support. But that chance was probably lost when the Trump administration threatened the entire state of Alaska to try to coerce her into backing repeal. By the wee hours of Friday morning, as Republican senators huddled around her trying to win their votes, it was too late.
Collins seemed opposed to full repeal from the beginning of this process. But if anything, Texas Republican Blake Farenthold's threat to duel her solidified her position rather than weakening it.
McConnell delayed the vote while his colleagues tried to get McCain to change his mind. Vice President Mike Pence, in the chamber to cast what he believed would be the tie breaking vote, couldn’t flip McCain to a yes. At one point President Trump, who had mocked McCain’s capture, torture and imprisonment during the Vietnam War just a little more than two years ago, implored McCain to change his vote with a last-minute phone call.
When McCain walked over to a crowd of grinning Democrats, joking and smiling, it seemed clear that the so-called “skinny repeal” was going down to defeat.
McCain was late in announcing his opposition. While McCain might say that both votes were correct—and in service to the traditions of the chamber—that last minute rescue of the Affordable Care Act and millions of people who benefit from it would have been unnecessary had McCain simply not cast a yes vote days earlier. And McCain himself seemed to relish the drama, telling reporters as he walked in for the final vote, “Watch the show.”
In hindsight, the Democrats’ decision to not allow partisanship to subsume collegiality or compassion, to cheer McCain along with their Republican colleagues, to embrace a friend even as he cast a decisive vote to move forward with a bill they despised, no longer seems naive. “I hope we can again rely on humility, on our need to cooperate, on our dependence on each other to learn how to trust each other again and by so doing better serve the people who elected us,” McCain had said in his speech.
Had Democrats met that vote by attacking McCain, he might not have voted no last night. He might not have been so immune to the entreaties of his colleagues. He might not have resisted the arm-twisting of the president who never spent a day in public service before winning an election, who mocked him so cruelly two years ago. He might have decided against casting a vote to derail his own party’s seven-year crusade to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, a goal he still endorses.
His predecessors in the Senate, McCain said, “knew that however sharp and heartfelt their disputes, however keen their ambitions, they had an obligation to work collaboratively to ensure the Senate discharged its constitutional responsibilities effectively.”
While repeal supporters' bullying might have solidified opposition to the bill, this time, Democrats' comity almost certainly bought them goodwill among the Republicans they needed to flip. Eventually, people get sick of being bullied.
Maybe not most of the time, maybe even not much of the time. But every once in a while, going high instead of going low pays off.