Democracy & Government

The Wayward Ways of John McCain

The war hero and Arizona lawmaker talked a good game on the Senate floor Tuesday, but his actions belie his words.

The Wayward Ways of John McCain

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) exits the US Capitol in Washington, DC after voting on the Senate floor to open debate on the Obamacare repeal on July 25, 2017. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Update, Friday, July 28: Just past 1:30 this morning, ET, “skinny repeal” was narrowly rejected by the US Senate, with, yes, John McCain casting the deciding vote against. I’m grateful to be proven wrong… mw


John McCain, we sincerely are sorry for your illness and wish you solace and peace. We value and honor your distinguished career in public service, both as heroic Navy pilot and a member of Congress.

But who can believe a word you say?

Actions speak louder than words, even when those words are delivered with such seeming sincerity as you displayed on the Senate floor on Tuesday afternoon. “Let’s trust each other,” you told your colleagues and the rest of the country.

“Let’s return to regular order. 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. That’s an approach that’s been employed by both sides, mandating legislation from the top down, without any support from the other side, with all the parliamentary maneuvers that requires.”

And yet there you were, John McCain, flying to Washington from your Arizona convalescence at the behest of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, voting to open debate on a bill to eviscerate Obamacare.

You didn’t have to do it, Sen. McCain. You would not be up for re-election until 2022, and a vote against the move to proceed would have shown you meant what you said when you declared you know a bad piece of lawmaking when you see one. Once again, you would have been a hero.

In the mad dash to destroy anything associated with the previous president, that bill — whatever it finally turns out to be — is a confusing and entangled mess, conceived in mystery behind closed doors and dedicated to no one but the fat cats salivating at the prospect of hundreds of millions in tax cuts and profits.

You didn’t have to do it, Senator McCain. You would not be up for re-election until 2022, and a vote against the move to proceed would have shown you meant what you said when you declared you know a bad piece of lawmaking when you see one. Once again, you would have been a hero.

The irony, of course, as Daniel Marans and Igor Bobic at HuffPost observed, is that “McCain’s cancer was detected thanks to his taxpayer-provided health insurance. He left his sick bed ahead of treatment to clear an obstacle to a bill that, even with major changes, would deprive millions of Americans access to health insurance.”

This cannot have escaped John McCain, and yet once again he speaks of principle but gives priority and obeisance to his party.

There was a time when McCain was perceived as “The Maverick,” rubbing against the grain of his GOP pals and speaking of tolerance and bipartisanship, words that sounded like heresy to right-wing ears. But while he talks a good game and is idealized by the media for it, he then doubles down on his loyalty to party orthodoxy and the Trump agenda.

(Sadly and lest we forget, in 2008, McCain paved the way for Donald Trump’s idiocracy by picking his own chucklehead for the national ticket — Sarah Palin, whom he would have put one heartbeat away, as the old cliché goes, from the Oval Office.)

All of this comes as the magazine Vanity Fair features in its current issue an article by Sarah Ellison headlined “The Enablers” and subtitled “Profiles in Cowardice.” In it, she briefly talks about six men in Washington who should know better, men who are making Trump’s improbable reign possible.

They are, she writes:

“… [S]eemingly rational politicians who knew exactly what Trump was like: who had cause to loathe and distrust him; who understood firsthand that he knew nothing about government and did not care to know anything; who could see clearly that he was dangerous, brutal, and corrupt; and who nonetheless decided, after occasional protests, to help him achieve and hold power.”

Despite being belittled and mocked by Trump, these men have not only declined to stand in his way but continue to prop him up — “for reasons that range from ambition and fear to denial and moral blindness.”

They are Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Mike Pence, Lindsey Graham, Reince Priebus… and John McCain.

McCain understands what McConnell is doing.

Ellison reviews the litany of insults that Trump bestowed on McCain. “Graduated last in his class at Annapolis — dummy!” said Trump. Referring to McCain’s failed 2008 bid for the presidency against Barack Obama, Trump complained: “I raised a million dollars for him — that’s a lot of money. I supported him. He lost; he let us down. But he lost and I never liked him much after that ‘cause I don’t like losers… He’s not a war hero.”

When the public responded in anger to the insult, Trump thuggishly made it worse: “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured, OK?”

On CBS’ Face the Nation, after news came that Trump had asked FBI Director James Comey to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn’s Russian connections, McCain said he thought the scandal was “reaching a point where it’s of Watergate size and scale.” Yet when McCain had the opportunity to question Comey directly at recent Senate hearings, he “displayed a knee-jerk defense of Trump.”

When all is said and done, it seems Trump and Mitch McConnell may get a “skinny” repeal bill, a stripped-down version they will send to a conference between the House and Senate where the conferees will go for the meanest, ugliest version. And still it may fail.

McCain knows this. He understands what McConnell is doing. The majority leader intends for GOP incumbents up for re-election next year to have one mantra: I VOTED TO END OBAMACARE. He and Trump will nod approvingly and the windfall of campaign contributions from the rich and mighty will cascade down upon the anointed whilst anyone who has gone against them will be punished.

But all may not go as planned. This repeal over which they have so obsessed may backfire. The base may be pleased, the contributors may be elated, but in the process they may have awakened and angered the vast majority of Americans who think repeal is a sham.

In her article, Sarah Ellison concludes:

“Donald Trump will suffer his own grim fate in the eyes of historians, but it will come with an asterisk: He is a profoundly damaged human being with no true understanding of his capacities, his emotions, his ignorance, his job or the fundamentals of human decency.

“His enablers will get no asterisk. They will be treated with the special contempt reserved for those who acted knowingly and cravenly, with eyes wide open.”

John McCain, is this how you want to be remembered?

Michael Winship

Senior Writer

Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.