All of this positioned McCain as a much more conventional Republican than in 2000, which left him highly vulnerable in the general election to the discontent with Bush, the outgoing Republican president. Yet McCain never entirely surrendered to the rising current of partisan confrontation. When a woman at a town hall questioned the loyalty to America of his opponent Barack Obama (and described him as an “Arab”), McCain forcefully shut her down. Country over party was not just a slogan to him.
With the rise of the Tea Party movement, the GOP further radicalized during Obama’s presidency, shrinking the audience even more for the bipartisan consensus-building McCain had earlier championed. McCain’s own enthusiasm for building bridges also palpably waned with his 2008 opponent in the Oval Office. During Obama’s two terms, McCain functioned more as a conventional conservative Republican than ever before, partly from personal pique, partly because he faced rising conservative resistance at home in Arizona. (Conservatives mounted serious primary challenges against him in both 2010 and 2016.)
Still, even then, he joined the “gang of eight” that again passed comprehensive, bipartisan immigration reform (including a pathway to citizenship) through the Senate in 2013, before the Republican-controlled House once more refused to consider it.
The ascent of Trump, who openly mocked McCain during the 2016 primaries, culminated the Senator’s isolation in the party—but also helped him recover his independent voice. Trump, with his preening self-absorption, open appeals to white racial resentment, and feral attacks on any institution or individual he believes can threaten him, negated all the ideals McCain had espoused at every stage of his career.
Repeatedly, McCain warned of the risks Trump presented to the founding principles not only of the GOP, but the country itself. McCain’s critical vote to block Trump and the vast majority of GOP legislators from repealing the Affordable Care Act on a party-line vote was a powerful statement against the growing sectarianism of modern politics. But now it looks like McCain’s final statement.
Yet even if McCain himself is no longer available to lead the internal Republican resistance to Trump, he bequeaths those critics a usable past. McCain’s 2000 campaign, with its message of reform, duty, and unity that demonstrated a powerful appeal to less-partisan voters, offers the party a potential path to electoral success that does not abandon conservative principles but also does not rely on the divisiveness, vitriol, and racial antagonism integral to Trump’s strategy.
It may be that since 2000, the GOP’s evolution into a party centered on white unease over demographic and social change has advanced too far for a McCain-style message to win a nominating primary. But those hoping to free the Republican Party from Trump’s grip won’t find a better place to start than reclaiming the commitment to service, civility, and civic obligation that defined John McCain’s incredible life.
Editor’s note: The Atlantic senior editor Ronald Brownstein has covered John McCain since his election to the House of Representatives in 1982. His wife served as the communications director in McCain’s Senate office for part of George W. Bush’s second term.