In the Senate, McCain sparred with Obama just as he had done with Bush. He locked arms with Republicans on opposing most of the new president’s domestic agenda, including an economic-stimulus package in 2009 and the Affordable Care Act the following year. A hawk in foreign affairs, he criticized the Democrat’s drawdown of troops in Iraq and his handling of crises in Libya and Syria. McCain also veered back to the right as he faced a primary challenge during the Tea Party wave of 2010. He backed off his support for comprehensive immigration reform and emphasized border security, despite having worked with the late Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts on proposals that would have offered a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. After winning reelection, however, he returned to his previous stance and co-sponsored similar legislation that passed the Senate but not the House.
By Obama’s second term, McCain’s presidential ambitions were gone, and he embraced the role of an elder statesman in the Republican Party. Over the years, his enduring popularity with the public was in no small part due to his relationship with the press. Whether in his regular appearances on the Sunday talk shows, his frequent scrums in the hallways of the Senate, or his kibitzing on the “Straight Talk Express” during his campaigns, McCain flattered reporters with access, candor, and humor. In speeches, he’d often refer to the press as “my base.” It was a joke that rang true.
John McCain’s health-care vote will help define his legacy.
McCain would have one more president to do battle with, but his bickering with Trump began nearly a year and a half before the nation’s 45th president took office. “He’s not a war hero,” Trump said of McCain at a campaign event in Iowa in 2015. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
The remark drew widespread condemnation from Republicans and Democrats alike, who rose to McCain’s defense. And it would linger as a backdrop to a relationship that became even more frayed during Trump’s first year. In July 2017, as Senate Republicans were preparing to consider legislation to repeal the ACA and fulfill a central campaign promise, McCain was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer—the same kind that had killed his friend Ted Kennedy eight years earlier. Republicans pushed back a key vote to wait for McCain to return, and when he did, he helped them bring the repeal bill to the floor. But he delivered a stem-winder of a speech that was part valedictory, part excoriation of the decaying of Senate norms, and part warning to Trump. “Whether or not we are of the same party, we are not the president's subordinates. We are his equal!” McCain declared.
Two days later, a new version of the repeal bill came up for a climactic vote. A pair of Republicans had already announced their intention to vote no, but if every other GOP senator voted yes, the measure would pass. It was well past midnight, and it came down to McCain. He strode into the chamber, approached the well, and signaled to the clerk. With a demonstrative flick of his wrist, he gave a thumbs down, and the amendment failed. At the age of 80 and months from death, McCain had turned against his party and, whether by design or not, preserved the domestic legacy of the man who had kept him from the presidency nine years earlier. He had played the maverick one last time.