Let’s face it, we desperately needed a hero. The country needed a hero as much as the millions whose health care was put at risk needed a 51st vote in those early morning hours on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
Everyone understood the stakes. At some point in our nation’s history, drama had given way to farce, greatness had become an Orwellian term and Donald Trump had been elected president.
And as if to reinforce the point, at the same time Trump and Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell were thoughtlessly working to rob 20-some million people of their health care coverage by overturning Obamacare, the latest character to emerge from TrumpWorld was someone called Mooch, who would be played by Joe Pesci in the movie. All he was missing was the baseball bat.
In just days on the job, the Mooch managed to hit new Trumpian lows in back-stabbing vulgarity, overshadowing the president himself even as Trump was sharing locker room stories with Boy Scouts. If we’ve learned anything in these past six months, it’s that there’s no such thing as the low point in TrumpWorld. There are valleys and deeper valleys and, at some point surely, the abyss.
And so entered John McCain, who understands this hero stuff as well as anyone. He has been a hero on the public stage for most of his adult life, and he knows full well the price that comes with the territory. He knows it each times he disappoints those who expect better of him, and he knows it each time he disappoints himself.
For those of us who have covered McCain over the years, we’ve seen both at play, and we’ve seen a man who has the good graces to at least feel bad when he doesn’t meet his own standards, which has happened all too often, and we won’t even get into the whole Sarah Palin thing.
This time was different. McCain had just been disagnosed with aggressive brain cancer. The prognosis is, to put it as gracefully as possible, not good. There is, we’ll assume, a focusing of the mind at such a point, but for McCain, he has been there before, with previous cancers and with, of course, the North Vietnamese.
McCain literally arose from his sickbed to come to Washington to vote on Obamacare. Who would expect less? And in the span of just a few days, McCain dominated the discussion. He was the deciding vote in favor of the motion to proceed, making everything that followed possible. If he had stayed home, the debate would have ended. The Republicans’ seven-year obsessive assault on Obamacare, for which they never developed a serious response, would have ended.
But McCain voted yes just moments before giving a speech decrying all that was wrong with politics in general and the U.S. Senate in particular. And then, six hours later, he voted for — yes, for — a rushed repeal-and-replace bill that would have robbed 22 million of their health care coverage and robbed Medicaid of nearly $800 billion, a bill he had just said he wouldn’t vote for.
Fortunately, the bill was crushed anyway. Who knows why McCain voted yes and then, finally, no? To build the drama? To keep us up late on a Thursday night, watching C-Span, trying to read lips or interpret body language? Was McCain really laughing with Schumer? Did Pence look even more, well, pensive than usual? Was the Republican dream really going to die because Republicans couldn’t find 50 votes among their 52 senators?
Democrats had two Republican votes to stop repeal. They needed three. Maine Sen. Susan Collins was solid all along. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski was as well. There were no McCain heroics if these two women — who would be reviled, naturally, because they were women — hadn’t stood firm and refused to vote for each iteration of Obamacare repeal.
The Trumpsters had resorted their typical deal-making prowess to their attempt to change Murkowski’s vote. They sent Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke — think of him as the muscle — to remind Murkowski of her vote and to remind her that he might have to change his mind on some Alaska projects. I don’t know if she laughed in his face, or spit in it, but clearly she didn’t change her vote.
Of course, Trump’s treatment of McCain is another matter. We can all remember when Trump said he prefers his heroes to have not been captured. It’s not unfair to wonder if McCain flashed back to that moment when he cast his vote.
But there’s a better explanation. For McCain, this was a legacy vote. He loves being called the maverick, and if he has not been mavericky enough to suit some of us, this is a vote that will be remembered forever more. Former New York Times columnist Frank Rich likened it to the moment Joseph Welch stood up to Joe McCarthy. That may be overreach, but the point is close enough.
This final vote was for something called “skinny repeal,” a bill that some Republicans themselves had called a fraud. Many were saying they would vote for the bill only if they were assured it would never become law. Has that ever happened before? Do we need to keep asking that question?
But there was no such assurance. And in the CBO scoring of a bill that would do little more than end individual and corporate mandates, 16 million would have lost insurance while premiums would have skyrocketed. The idea was to get the bill to a House-Senate conference in order to bail out the failing Senate.
What’s a hero? There’s a Hollywood line that says the difference between a hero and a coward is one step sideways. We know the names of those who went sideways. Capito, Heller, Johnson, Graham, Portman, more. We know the names of those who didn’t move at all, frozen in the moment. We can start with Cory Gardner.
Everyone should have voted against this bill. Everyone. There could hardly be a worse bill. It didn’t do what Republicans promised. It needlessly hurt millions. Every Democrat voted against. Susan Collins voted against. Lisa Murkowski voted against. And when John McCain walked toward the podium and shouted, “No,” the drama and the repeal effort were put to rest.
This once, high drama would overcome low comedy. And now, on the morning after, we’re left to wonder when or if that might happen again.
Photo by Tobias Begemann, via Flickr: Creative Commons