U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) wore many remarkable labels: war hero, Senator, “maverick”, statesman; and for the past year, cancer survivor. But yesterday, McCain finally succumbed in his battle with glioblastoma (a lethal brain cancer). He was 81.
McCain may no longer be with us, but he has left behind an extensive legacy that’s defined by service to one’s country, even when the country’s best interest differed from his own party’s interests.
How “The Maverick” earned his label
Make no mistake: John McCain had a fairly consistent record of advocating conservative values. Yet at the same time, McCain also valued bipartisanship, consensus, and workable solutions for a number of issues.
His first presidential campaign in 2000 captivated the nation for the sharp contrast between McCain and the eventual winner, George W. Bush. Though Bush espoused what he called “compassionate conservatism”, he nonetheless provided hints of the right-wing agenda that came to define his presidency. McCain, on the other hand, ran hard on a platform of cleaning out corruption in government, and cemented his reputation by refusing to back down amidst anonymous personal attacks that materialized just before the South Carolina primary.
After Bush took office, McCain then became one of the staunchest defenders of his expansionist, neoconservative foreign policy, including the Iraq War that ultimately dragged down the Bush presidency. Yet even then, McCain was also outspoken in condemning the Bush administration’s use of torture (something McCain himself experienced as a prisoner of war in Vietnam) and demanding the U.S. never again engage in such activity.
McCain zigged, then zagged, in the Obama era
When John McCain embarked on his second presidential campaign in 2008, he toned down the “maverick-ness” and hewed closer to the party line. It worked, at least when it came to winning the Republican nomination. On top of that, McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate foreshadowed the coming “Tea Party” that would yank the Republican Party in a more nativist direction, which then provided the opening for one Donald Trump to run for President.
However, McCain didn’t completely forsake his iconoclastic ways. In October 2008, McCain famously corrected people at his town hall who questioned Barack Obama’s loyalty to the country. “He is a decent person, and a person you do not have to be scared [of becoming] President of the United States,” McCain told the audience. He continued, “[Obama] is a decent family man and citizen that I happen to have disagreements with.”
After President Barack Obama won reelection in 2012, McCain again broke with the far-right wing of the Republican Party on two key issues. First, he joined the “Gang of Eight” to craft a comprehensive immigration reform bill that could breach the partisan divide and provide a path to citizenship for the roughly 11 million people who were here undocumented. The bill ultimately passed the Senate 68-32 in June 2013, but House Republican leaders never allowed a vote on it in their chamber.
In addition, McCain was one of four Republicans who voted with the vast majority of Democrats in April 2013 to support legislation to close background check loopholes for gun sales. Despite overwhelming support among the public to strengthen federal gun laws after the 2012 Newtown Massacre, McCain’s vote wasn’t enough to break the Senate filibuster.
Trump vs. “the war hero that was captured”
Shortly after Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign in the summer of 2015, he denigrated McCain and his military record as he declared, “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured”.
Here’s what Trump was denigrating: McCain’s service in the U.S. Navy as a fighter pilot, and his being captured, tortured, and left for dead by the North Vietnamese Army. And while McCain was fighting for the country in Vietnam, Trump conveniently got a doctor’s note that helped him avoid the draft.
And yet, McCain endorsed Trump for President once he secured the Republican nomination… Only to unendorse Trump after the “Access Hollywood” tape dropped. Since then, McCain had a more adversarial relationship with the White House than what one expects for a President and a Senator who shared the same party.
One last act of defiance for “The Maverick”
That adversarial relationship worsened in July 2017, when Republican leaders were scrambling to whip the votes to pass the “skinny repeal” version of Trumpcare that would have done away with most of Obamacare (or the Affordable Care Act). Even though McCain ran against Obama in 2008 and voted against Obamacare in 2010, he made a dramatic return to Washington, D.C., just one week after his own health care scare (surgery to treat his glioblastoma) to resist Vice President Mike Pence’s demands and give the iconic “thumbs down” that helped save Obama’s signature health care law.
From there, McCain’s relationship with Trump deteriorated further. Not only did they continue to spar on policy differences, but Trump and his team resumed the personal attacks on McCain that began during the presidential campaign. This war of words culminated this past May, when a White House aide said, “It doesn’t matter, he’s going to die anyway,” while discussing McCain’s opposition to Trump’s nomination of Gina Haspel for CIA director over concerns about her record on torture.
Three months later, John McCain has left the building one last time. He leaves behind an incredible legacy: one of holding fast to his values, yet also one of reaching across the aisle to achieve his goals. His conduct harkened back to a different era of honor and consensus, yet he was also a force for modernity and inclusion in his party. John McCain may not have “gone full maverick” all the time; but when he did, it mattered, and he’s left this nation a better place for it.
Cover photo by Gage Skidmore, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Wikimedia.