Every great western ends this way. The lonely and erstwhile anti-hero, equal parts brave and craven, comes to the end of their journey. They are given a choice: put down your gun, submit to the inevitable change that is coming, and live out the remainder of your days as a shadow of your former self or stick to your code, fight against terrible odds, and risk it all one last time. It’s John Wayne in The Shootist. Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven. And it was John McCain last night.
After seven years of non-stop campaigning, politicking, and grandstanding the GOP crusade against Obamacare came to a head in the wee hours of July 28, 2017. Despite controlling both the House and the Senate along with the executive branch (and a thin majority in Supreme Court to boot), Republicans have been unable to pass any meaningful legislation on health care reform (or any other issue). The House passed a monstrosity of a bill that no one wants– they could never get the moderates and the Freedom Caucus extremists to agree. The Senate’s efforts have met similar fates, undone by several moderate Senators– led by two unintimidated and strong women in Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who team Trump had the indignity to have the Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke call to threaten to pull funding to issues that are of vital importance to the state if she did not vote the way the President wanted her to. Hilarious aside, Murkowski actually chairs the committee that controls Interiors budget! (Note to team Trump: threatening to withhold funding from the person who controls YOUR funding is wildly idiotic. Learn how the government works before you go stomping around making threats that can’t possibly work.) Mitch McConnell dug once more into his bag of procedural tricks and tried a final gambit– pass a “skinny repeal” that would cripple Obamacare and one sixth of the American economy if the House adopted it, theoretically forcing the two bodies to come together to pass comprehensive reform.
Assurances from Paul Ryan and other House GOP leaders poured in. The Senators who have been sitting on the fence, like Lindsey Graham, Rob Portman, and John McCain had their word that this would never become law. Then again, House members were saying things like “Passing the ‘skinny repeal’ would be better than doing nothing…” and the word of Paul Ryan doesn’t count for much these days. Collins and Murkowski would oppose it. The danger was too great for their citizens. The promises of the House were too shallow. They would be voting “no” along with the chamber’s 48 Democrats. Vice President Mike Pence was on hand, ready to cast the decisive vote to tip the scale to 51-50. Seven years and tens of billions of dollars went into making this moment and it had arrived. Donald Trump would finally get a victory. All that was needed was the vote of John McCain.
This should have been easy. McCain campaigned hard for Mitt Romney on the need to repeal Obamacare. Here he was, returning to Washington fresh off brain cancer diagnosis, to do his duty as a Republican Senator and finally kill Obamacare. Yes, he made a big speech Tuesday pleading for a return to bipartisanship in Congress. But we’d all seen this before. Soaring rhetoric followed by falling into line with the party vote. Bipartisanship meant capitulation. Surely McCain didn’t come all this way, vote to open up one final debate on this issue (an issue that played a part in his being denied the office he so wanted five years ago) just to say no…
Senate votes are often not what they seem. Politics is a tricky game. Doing the right thing when it crosses your party leadership and the most excitable part of your base is difficult. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski were not the only members of the GOP who wanted to vote against the skinny repeal. Lindsey Graham called it disastrous politics and made clear that if made law this would harm Americans. Rob Portman said it was inappropriate to repeal without a comprehensive replacement that improved coverage and costs for Americans (and Ohioans in particular). Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia railed about the horrible costs this would place on the people of her state– a state that went overwhelmingly for a President who said he’d get rid of Obamacare and replace it with something much better. This was not much better. This was simply crippling Obamacare. It would help no one and harm everyone.
On its face, it seems like voting down these harmful Obamacare repeals would be no problem. That ignores the context of the situation. When you spend the better part of a decade promising your voters you will do something, going as far as to make it a central plank of your party platform nationwide, eventually they expect you to deliver. Failing to do so, year after year after year, has harmed the party. It underscores the fact that the party never had an alternative to Obamacare. If they never had an alternative, how could they promise you that they would repeal and replace it? If there was no plan, how could Donald Trump tell you that he and the GOP would replace Obamacare with something so much better that you wouldn’t believe it? They were lying, of course. And lying to your constituents isn’t a great reelection strategy. In order to escape this wrath, you end up being painted into a corner. Vote for a horrible bill in order to fulfill your promise or vote against it because it will harm America, but will make you look like a liar and a traitor to your voters.
Were it not for this context, the Obamacare repeal and replace movement would have died many times over by now. It should have perished in 2012– when you soundly lose a Presidential campaign that your party turned into a referendum on one specific piece of legislation that would signify that your position is a political loser. It lived on. It wasn’t that the GOP had no plan or that Obamacare had more support than they realized, it was simply Mitt Romney’s weakness as a candidate or some devilish trick pulled by the charismatic black man. If the GOP could just get control of the House they could get rid of Obamacare. That didn’t work. Turns out, they needed the Senate too. Still not enough. Give us the Presidency, the House, and the Senate and we’ll finally have the strength to kill Obamacare! It had to be enough this time. The excuses were running out.
This is the context for the Obamacare skinny repeal. The GOP boxed themselves in. They have to repeal it. But their plans are so bad that they can’t agree on which bad option is the least terrible, their constituents overwhelmingly don’t want them to pass it, and many of them openly profess not wanting to vote for it. They just needed three Senators to come in and take the heat. Two strong women already opposed it. Who would step forward to be that final scapegoat?
Ron Johnson, Lindsey Graham, and John McCain took the stage late last night to say they opposed it unless the House could give them “Ironclad” guarantees that this would never see the light of day. Graham spoke the most forcefully before opting to take Ryan at his weaselly word. Johnson also capitulated. That left the old Maverick, John McCain.
It had been a long time since he really played that role. The election in ’08 had taken a lot of the wind out of his sails. He found himself in unfamiliar territory. A man who had long considered himself an outsider was now being flanked in his own party. He had supported too much of the now unpopular George W. Bush agenda for the tastes of talk radio and the GOP base (never mind that these same people had trumpeted the neocons and their wars the whole time). Taking on Sarah Palin to appease and excite this radicalizing base weakened his appeal to moderates. In the years that followed, McCain often seemed adrift. He’d criticize party leadership, go against the talking points of the right wing infotainment complex, and then vote in lockstep with them. The Maverick had looked down the barrel of political irrelevance and blinked.
If the failure of the neocons, the success of Barack Obama, and the rise of the Tea Party had put the old Maverick to rest, Donald Trump and the Deplorables had brought a spark back to his eye. Trump personally insulted McCain’s patriotism and heroic service to the nation. McCain began to speak a little louder and walk a little taller. Trump’s politics are short-sighted, harmful, and often impressively stupid– an easy foil for a seasoned old hand like John McCain. He was recapturing his popularity. McCain was a sought after guest for the Sunday morning political talk circuit. He was the press corps go to guy for negative GOP reactions to the President’s inane and often mean spirited tweets. The John McCain story wasn’t over yet after all. He was relevant again.
No hero arch would be complete without a final twist and some tragedy. Last week, John McCain was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer. His chances of beating the disease are low and his time on Earth is likely coming to an end. James Baldwin once wrote that “the most dangerous creation of any society is that man who has nothing to lose.” This is true. And the most dangerous man in politics is the one who has no elections left to lose. John McCain isn’t staring down his political death– he’s facing his literal mortality. His speech Tuesday made clear what he wants to accomplish in whatever amount of time he has left. He is a man on a mission. He is raging against the dying of the light. He’ll take the heat for his colleagues in order to stop foolish and harmful bills from being passed. He’ll be the scape goat of Leviticus. He’ll be J.B. Books or William Munny. He’ll pick up the gun and walk back out into the streets for one last fight, bearing the sins of the party so that the Grahams and Portmans of the world can live to fight another day.
I don’t know if this is the end for Senator John McCain. He may survive, both the political blowback and this illness. He’s beaten the odds too many times before for me to write him off. But if it is, the Maverick went out in the sort of last stand we so often dream of but rarely have the opportunity to live out.
My friend Terry Williams, pastor of Orchard Hill United Church of Christ in Chillocothe, Ohio summed up this moment and what McCain did well:
So off he goes, the sin-goat of the GOP, carrying all the arch-conservative blame and rage on this issue out into the Arizona desert. Thanks be to God for scapegoats and mavericks.
Thanks be, indeed.