On Tuesday afternoon, cancer-stricken Sen. John McCain returned to the Senate to cast a critical vote on moving forward with Trumpcare and delivered a Sorkinesque speech defending the Senate’s procedural norms. But he gave this speech after voting against those very norms, helping to advance a bill that has been crafted without public hearings, that lacks an up-to-date score on its impact from the Congressional Budget Office, and whose current text has yet to be released to the very senators voting to hurry it along, let alone the American people.
Naturally, McCain made a point of criticizing the secrecy surrounding Trumpcare in a section of the speech in which he emphasized that he would not be supporting the bill’s current form:
We tried to do this by coming up with a proposal behind closed doors in consultation with the administration. Then springing it on skeptical members, trying to convince them that it’s better than nothing. That it’s better than nothing? Asking us to swallow our doubts and force it past a unified opposition. I don’t think that’s going to work in the end and it probably shouldn’t.
As McCain knows, it very well might now that he’s cast a critical vote on the motion to proceed to debate. But if the prospect—as laid out by some of the best available estimates—of 22 million Americans becoming uninsured and tens of thousands of those Americans dying thanks, in part, to his acquiescence troubled him, McCain didn’t let it show. He cracked self-deprecating jokes in the right places: “I’ve had so many people say such nice things about me recently. I think some of you must have me confused with someone else.” He thundered in support of a return to the Senate’s regular order and bipartisanship. And he warned his colleagues not to cave to the demands of the “bombastic loudmouths on the radio, and television, and the internet.”
One of those loudmouths is now the president of the United States, a man whose agenda McCain has supported in more than 90 percent of relevant Senate votes. His own support for the president’s priorities didn’t stop McCain from arguing that Congress shouldn’t kowtow to Trump’s wishes. “Whether or not we are of the same party, we are not the president’s subordinates,” he said. “We’re his equal. As his responsibilities are onerous…so are ours.”
A survey of McCain’s career suggests he has long considered his prime responsibility the securing of his own canonization as a fiercely independent statesman while largely supporting the Republican Party line. He has achieved this mainly through a half-handful of important moderate votes (several of which are more than a decade old), an insatiable hunger for American military intervention (which began falling out of fashion in the Republican Party somewhere between the 3,000th and 4,000th American military casualty in Iraq), and selecting Sarah Palin as his running mate for his 2008 presidential run (a move that kicked open the doors to the gaping political hell in which we now live). Throughout his speech Tuesday, as throughout his career, McCain nevertheless worked to convince political observers that he’s a paragon of neutral reason, bravely defending our ideals and procedural norms in a frenzied, hyperpartisan era.
That is not who John McCain is. John McCain is a Republican politician, one who has voted with his party roughly 87 percent of the time since he entered the Senate. He has now voted to proceed with a hook or crook effort to pass a bill that will threaten access to healthcare for millions of Americans because that is what his Republican Party wants to do. His work done, he begins his exit from the political stage with two distinct privileges: First, access to the kind of medicine that millions of Americans may soon lack partially as a consequence of his actions. Second, the respect of journalists and Democrats who, quite literally, applauded him Tuesday afternoon, grateful as they were to see the Maverick in dramatic action perhaps one last time.