The Good Fight

The Right Kind of Partisan

John McCain respected those he profoundly disagreed with. His adversaries should do the same.

John McCain and Barack Obama share a handshake
President-elect Barack Obama introduces his former political rival Sen. John McCain at a bipartisan dinner in the National Building Museum on January 19, 2009 in Washington, DC.
Pool/Getty Images

“For democracies to work,” Michael Ignatieff, the former leader of the Canadian Liberal Party and now the president of Central European University, once wrote, “politicians need to respect the difference between an enemy and an adversary. An adversary is someone you want to defeat. An enemy is someone you have to destroy.”

As one of the most successful and influential politicians of his generation, John McCain made many important contributions to our country. He championed the most important piece of legislation on campaign finance to pass congress in the past half century. He warned about the danger Russia posed to democratic values when most Americans barely knew who Vladimir Putin was. He was one of Donald Trump’s most cogent conservative critics. And when he bucked his own party to vote down the repeal of the Affordable Care Act with a dramatic late-night hand gesture, he helped to preserve health care access for millions of Americans.

But the epitome of McCain’s political decency came at the height of his 2008 presidential campaign. At a town hall meeting a few days before the election, a voter said that he was scared what would happen to his country if Barack Obama was elected. “First of all,” McCain emphasized, “I want to be president of the United States and obviously I do not want Senator Obama to be.” Then he pivoted. “But I have to tell you: He is a decent person, and a person who you do not have to be scared of as president of the United States.”

Though some members of the audience reacted with loud frustration at this show of class, McCain doubled down a few moments later. “I can’t trust Obama,” an older woman in the audience told him. “I’ve read about him, and he’s not, he’s not … He’s an Arab.” Gently shaking his head, McCain took back her microphone: “No, Ma’am. No, Ma’am,” he said. “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 is all about.”

Some people hope that Americans might one day be able to cast aside our differences and recognize that, far from being either enemies or adversaries, we are actually friends. That hope is naïve: Complex societies like ours will always have deep political fault lines. The spirit of democracy is not to hide or overcome those disagreements, but rather to channel them into productive political competition.

That is why McCain was not a bi- or even non-partisan patriot, as some misremember him. Rather, he represented something we need much more urgently: a decent partisan, who was animated by his conviction about how to change the country, and yet deeply respectful of the people with whom he disagreed.

And this, of course, also helps us to understand the true nature of the man whom McCain so obviously disdained: The deepest problem with Donald Trump is not that he has political views with which many Americans viscerally disagree, or even that he desperately wants his own side to win. It is that he casts anybody who does disagree with him as an enemy, not only of himself, but of the country as a whole. And in that sense, the most ignoble thing Trump ever said about McCain—his suggestion that McCain wasn’t a war hero because he had been captured (and badly tortured) by the Vietcong—was a logical outflow of his core convictions: Trump’s world view does not brook the possibility that a man who disagreed with him as deeply as McCain always did might nevertheless have had universally admired accomplishments to his name.

Now, one of the things about people whom we respect as adversaries even as we remember that they are not necessarily our friends is that they will sometimes infuriate us. In that sense, it is both unsurprising and perfectly healthy that some have, even at the moment of McCain’s passing, pointed out his mistakes. Like them, I felt that McCain was, at certain times in his career, overly hawkish. And like them—indeed, like him—I believe that he made a grave and consequential mistake in asking Sarah Palin to be his running mate.

Our adversaries won’t always make it easy for us. That was, at times, true even of a man as decent and impressive as John McCain. But that should only make us all the more willing to express our admiration for them: for if we are unable to feel deep respect, and perhaps even a healthy dose of grudging affection, when such an accomplished adversary passes away, we are doomed to forever think of half of our compatriots as inveterate enemies.