The Meaning of McCain
For all their recent tribalism, the American people apparently retain a deep well of hope for the resumption of a more considered, unifying time. If anything symbolizes this deeply held lament, it is the paroxysm of national mourning occasioned by the death of Senator John McCain. McCain’s death, following months of absence from the Senate, deprives the United States of one of the last larger-than-life legislators, a throwback to an earlier era of legislative personalities dominating politics. Perhaps most remarkable are the heartfelt statements by members of the Democratic party, from Barack Obama to Bernie Sanders, all of whom appear to have enormous respect for the contributions of their departed colleague. That even rock-ribbed Democrats mourn the loss of McCain is not because of McCain’s politics per se. Despite the good press he received from liberals- McCain once referred to reporters as “his base”- McCain was a reliable Republican, a man given to well-crafted public remarks but often-regrettable votes; in one of his first votes in Congress, McCain voted against a holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr. The more recent hagiography suggests that McCain was a moderate Republican, a consistent “Maverick,” and a bipartisan or even nonpartisan dealmaker. All of it blends truth and fiction. Despite his occasional forays into apostasy, McCain was a fairly doctrinaire conservative, a man who voted with the Trump Administration over 80 percent of the time, and a man who, when necessary, would reject even positions he himself argued were sacrosanct. Whatever else McCain was, a liberal, or even a moderate, he was not.
While McCain’s legend may have eclipsed his reality, his passing from the scene is still worthy of the laments of his colleagues and opponents alike. If he was not always a bipartisan leader, above the fray, nor always the Maverick truth teller of legend, his positive legacy, one worth remembering and honoring, nevertheless encompasses two complementary and critical ideas: first, that Congress should retain the traditional power granted it under the Constitution, and second, that our political opponents are our rivals, our partners, and sometimes even our tormenters, but never our enemies. McCain-ism, should there be such a thing, found solace in both the work of Senate and the battles over policy engaged within its walls. Having been deprived of his liberty in a foreign land, McCain found renewed strength in the republican structure of his own. Channeling his natural intelligence and tempestuousness, McCain found just the right mixture to both relentlessly batter the politicians on the opposite side of the aisle while simultaneously attempting to work with them on matters which demanded the nation’s attention. He did not do so because he was a ‘moderate’ — he wasn’t- but because he recognized that without both elements, rhetorical battles to draw out the issues and backroom bargains to settle them, legislative action would falter, and presidentialism, with all its pretentions to autocracy, would step into the void. The words spoken by McCain of Ted Kennedy in a 2010 speech — “A fight not joined was a fight not enjoyed”- revealed not just McCain’s own love of pugnaciousness but his respect of the democratic process, as the former was, in McCain’s views, best used in service of the latter, McCain’s love of the “West”, an attachment bordering on the romantic, was directly correlated to his domestic views of Congressional order. His passionate defense of liberty, empowering dissidents from the Baltics to Myanmar and frustrating autocrats from Putin on down, was an authentic belief that if the battles over power were run through the channels of Constitutional, legislative primacy rather than struggles for the reigns of oppression, human bondage would give way to human flourishing. By empowering the people’s representatives, and by ensuring they were men and women devoted to the fight within the corridors presented to them by the Constitution, the magic of the West would spread itself across the globe. This view stitched together all of McCain’s basic beliefs, and if it led to some outsized failures, Iraq being the biggest, it also presented a cohesive and cognizable view of the American mission in the world now left rudderless without its staunchest defender.
It is this void in the fabric of our nation which causes such an outpouring of remembrance. The country today mourns not just the man, but the moment. That Senator McCain has died during the dark eclipse of establishment Republican politics by Trumpian authoritarianism freights the season of his departure with added significance. McCain’s final book is entitled “The Restless Wave,” but consistent with his mordant wit and the times, he considered titling it “It’s Always Darkest before it’s Totally Black.” McCain’s death reminds us of the rejection of his brand of politics, and it is that rejection which haunts Americans of all political persuasions. McCain by his untimely loss is forever consecrated as a lost icon of an era now swamped by tides so bleary that even the one, unquestioned act of true greatness in McCain’s life — his rejection of early release from North Vietnamese captivity to endure years of trauma in the service of his nation — is now fodder for a President who famously, and without recrimination recast McCain’s sacrifice as a failure compared to men who “weren’t captured.”
The man himself, of course, was a fascinating amalgamation of outsized traits, alternatively worthy of the highest praise and head-shaking fury. McCain’s own successes and failures were as immense as the reputation he cultivated. Were his career boiled down to specific moments, they would entail the heights of courage displayed in Vietnam, his quixotic pursuit of campaign finance reform, his bipartisan appeal for sane immigration reform, and his consistent, principled refusal to bend the light spectrum of decency and shelter under the protective shield of his reputation the national stain of legalized torture. It would also entail his support for the humanitarian and strategic disaster of the Iraq War, the Keating 5 scandal, and his role in unleashing the monster of proto-know nothing ethno-populism which later devoured the GOP, personified in his 2008 selection of Sarah Palin. Even his best moments were caged in ambiguity: during the 2008 election, his defense of Barack Obama to a woman who sought to define Obama as an “Arab” — “He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign’s all about” — not only failed to state that “Arab” wasn’t a slur, but came just three days after his campaign released an ad begging the question of Obama’s otherness: “Barack Obama and domestic terrorist Bill Ayers . . . friends. But Obama tries to hide it. Why?” His famous vote to stop the end of Obamacare, in which he decried the end of “regular order”, came just months before he voted for a tax bill released without Democratic contribution and just hours before the vote, the very definition of irregular order.
Yet the mixture of success and failure, emboldening and enraging, helped make him the object of no small admiration. Our failures often tell us as much as our successes, and McCain became larger than life by embracing the foibles that made him all too human. Few other contemporary politicians were as open as to the heights of their moral ambitions or as publicly analytical as to failures in achieving them. Whether talking about the failures of his first marriage or the temptation of corruption that ensnared him in the Keating 5 scandal, McCain was never as thoughtful as in describing his own slips on the footfalls up the mountain of ethics he sought so openly to climb. In an era when politicians will talk in circles lest they ever admit fault, McCain’s auto-critical honesty was refreshing. His frank critique of himself displayed an appealing modesty at the gates of history that lived in uneasy harmony with his ambition, humanizing and grounding him further. His intellectual curiosity spoke well of him as well. Most know he was imprisoned in North Vietnam. Fewer know that just a year after release, he returned to South Vietnam and demanded to tour the South Vietnamese prisons in which North Vietnamese were held, in order to see for himself whether the torments inflicted on Communist prisoners were comparable to those he received. No other American sought such access.
His was also a story of politics for the sake of service. In an era when the men and women elected to Congress are often no more than party apparatchiks, individuals grown in the claustrophobic Washington petri dish of encrusted think tanks, partisan policy positions, and fundraising talents, McCain represented the last of a lost breed: men and women who came to politics through the lived experience of both the common and uncommon life and a genuine desire, discovered within, to serve the body politic. McCain was 41 years old before he had any exposure to electoral politics, as the Navy’s liason to the US Senate. Through his military service, and growing up as the son of a military family, he moved often, gaining exposure to different people and different parts of the world: as he said in 1982, in a devastating rejoinder to an accusation that he was not a native son of Arizona despite running for a Congressional seat, “As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi.”
McCain entered Congress as a partisan battler: as he later said, showing again the candor of self-critique: “I was a real jerk when I was first in Congress. I didn’t know anything, and I thought I knew everything.” Yet liberal Democratic congressman Mo Udall suggested that they work together on issues of common interest. Udall invited McCain to joint press conferences in Arizona, and made sure to teach the freshman legislator the value of consensus, compromise, and collegiality. Thanks to his natural openness to ideas and belief in the value of comradeship, one forged in the steel trap of the Hanoi Hilton, McCain adopted some of Udall’s bipartisan belief into his own persona. Udall’s was a lesson McCain never forgot, and when infused with both his passionate attachment to Western democracy and his own natural gregariousness, succeeded in holding back, even a little, the tide of staunch partisanship that has now all but destroyed Congress. If McCain has a political legacy, let it be his deeply held belief in the legitimacy of opposition and its critical role in the people’s business of legislating our own destiny. It is telling that the greatest electoral opponents of McCain’s political life, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, are precisely the men who McCain has asked to eulogize him. In one of his last tweets, upon stepping down from his role as Chair of the Armed Services Committee McCain tweeted, “My term as #SASC Chairman has been far from perfect. But I’m proud our members have upheld the Senate’s finest traditions, embraced regular order, worked within our peculiar rules and customs, and accepted the necessity of compromise.” McCainism as a whole could scarcely be better stated,
McCainism, while it lasted, stood in direct contrast with the only remaining political theory left within the walls of Congress. Whatever his laudable statements on John McCain, Mitch McConnell is his direct opposite: a man of limited principle and outsized belief in party discipline. McConnell-ism, the idea that power finds its own reasons for perpetrating its longevity, and that consequently, actions done for the sake of partisan dominance are de facto acceptable even when straining the bonds of Constitutional restraint, had defeated McCain’s views long ago, but its victory is now complete. Where the same party holds the White House, McConnellism demands lockstep adherence; where the opposite party holds the White House, it demands unyielding obstruction. Compromise is collusion, and collegiality is appeasement; the elements which Udall taught McCain are strangled. Worse, the power of the majority party in McConnellism is enhanced, but that of Congress, the heart and soul of the Founders’ vision, is greatly diminished- either it is meant to not function at all, or to rubber stamp the administration’s desires. Even McCain’s greatest success as a so-called Maverick, the bipartisan McCain-Feingold bill which sought to curb the deluge of money rushing through the veins of American politics, met its Waterloo at the hands of McConnell: it was McConnell who, in his role as Senate Majority Whip sued the FEC to overturn the bill, an action that failed but set the groundwork for the later Citizens United decision eviscerating restrictions on corporate financing of elections.
In the end, the victory of McConnellism is McCain’s great tragedy. Having spent his political career arguing for the value in both battle and compromise, he has left the scene at the precise moment when only one half of the duopoly for which he defined himself has survived. In an earlier era, McCain’s belief in the Senate, in Constitutional order, and in bipartisan decency, would have marked him as fairly conventional, remembered more for his acerbic, camera-loving nature and his occasional forays into intra-party intransigence. That his exit is freighted with the weight of far greater loss speaks volumes about the diminished political world that McCain leaves behind.