The two sides of John McCain

It was an extraordinary moment on the floor of the U.S. Senate this afternoon when Sen. John McCain took to the lectern to criticize what he’d just done, voting to “continue debate” on the Republican health care bill, which, so far, doesn’t exist.

It was vintage McCain, who flew to Washington today, days after it was announced he has brain cancer, doing one thing, then demanding greater principles from others moments later, scolding the process that he just supported.

With Aaron Sorkin-like prose masking a John McCain-like vote, the senator angrily called for open hearings on a bipartisan health care bill “with contributions from both sides”, and then asserted — incorrectly — “something that my dear friends on the other side of the aisle didn’t allow to happen nine years ago.”

The moment was uniquely McCain, seeming to fully embrace and personify the desire for a bipartisan approach to governing, and then quickly retreating before he could have any substantial influence on the subject.

It was a strange aside, coming as it did moments after he helped Senate Republicans keep a secretive effort alive to repeal health care coverage. The Arizona senator could’ve punished the process to which he objected. With his vote, he enabled it anew.

“Let’s trust each other,” he declared. “Let’s return to regular order. We’ve been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle. That’s an approach that’s been employed by both sides, mandating legislation from the top down, without any support from the other side, with all the parliamentary maneuvers that requires.”

McCain then declared “I will not vote for this bill as it stands today.” There is, so far, no bill to vote on, however.

“It’s a shell of a bill right now. We all know that,” he said. “I have changes urged by my state’s governor that will have to be included to earn my support for final passage of any bill. I know many of you will have to see the bill changed substantially for you to support it.”

But the biggest applause for McCain came when he said, “Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and the television and the internet. To hell with them! They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood.”

McCain said he’ll return to Arizona for treatment of his cancer and hopes to return to Washington someday.

“I have every intention of returning here and giving many of you cause to regret all the nice things you said about me,” he said.

  • AL287

    As a healthcare professional, I think McCain’s brain tumor is more serious than anyone is letting on. It’s probably what caused his confused responses during hearings two months ago.

    His mind is drifting and he is not thinking clearly and this has absolutely nothing to do with partisanship or politics.

    He is a very sick man. His expression in that photo would alarm anyone who knows him well.

    Why couldn’t his colleagues in the Senate just leave him be? Are they so hell bent on defeating the ACA that they would hasten a man’s death?

    Shame on all of them.

    • >>As a healthcare professional, I think McCain’s brain tumor is more serious than anyone is letting on.<<

      He'll be dead within a year.

      /Watched helplessly as my father passed away from brain cancer

      • crystals

        I have struggled tremendously over the last week with this. I appreciate & respect people want to be encouraging and show support so say things like if anyone can beat it, he can (and so forth). The reality is that’s not how cancer works – especially this type of cancer. It is isn’t about who is the best fighter or who wants to live most. It’s $*#&@ awful and deadly, and I hate messages that imply it’s about courage or bravery. Everyone who fights cancer is doing the best they can with what they’ve got. Let’s not make it into a competition about who wants to live the most, or who has the best chance to beat it.


        • Jerry

          When people say things like that it implies that it is someone’s fault if they succumb to a disease, which is pretty cold and excuses things like not guaranteeing health care.

      • AL287

        I am sorry for your loss, Onan.

        I hope your family was able to take advantage of hospice care so his worst symptoms could be relieved.

        Malignant brain cancer of McCain’s type shows no mercy and doesn’t discriminate. It is an equal opportunity killer.

        • Thank you.

          Actually yes, we did take advantage of hospice care here:

          My father lived alone and was fiercely independent. The amount of time I had available for his care was limited by the fact that I have a FT job and my own life. I eventually had to pretty much force him into hospice with the help of social workers and nurses (he was a social worker himself).

          This was the best fit for him and the people involved at this hospice treated my father (and everyone else that I could see) with dignity and respect.

          So far as the brain cancer went, he was not in his right mind for the last 8 months of his life – he would say things to me that he NEVER would have said pre-cancer.

          Hurtful things.

          It got to the point where I could only spend 20 minutes at a time for a visit. I always knew it was the cancer talking, but it was still hard to be on the receiving end of abusive dialog.

          Needless to say, cancer sucks.

          • Jeff C.

            Ouch. That must have really hurt. Thanks for sharing. And I’m sorry you had to go through that. (And I’m sorry your dad had to go through it, too.)

          • Thanks, I appreciate that.


    • Barton

      It doesn’t, however, explain these actions for the past 20 years. And it he has been doing this ‘say one thing, do another’ for a long long time.

      • AL287

        As Bob Collins has pointed out, the press was perfectly willing overlook the hypocrisy of his last 20 years in the Senate.

        Unfortunately there was a disconnect with the voting electorate when it came to the hypocrisy in Donald Trump’s last 20 years which were far more disturbing than John McCain’s.

        John McCain might have done the “say one thing, do another” but he didn’t disrespect women, foment racism and encourage bigotry when he was doing it.

        • // Unfortunately there was a disconnect with the voting electorate when it came to the hypocrisy in Donald Trump’s last 20 years which were far more disturbing than John McCain’s.

          Sort of. Really the most undercovered aspect of Trump’s victory is the extent to which Evangelical Christians walked away from their principles in order to get an anti-abortion justice on the Supreme Court.

          • AL287

            The Bible encourages us to care for the less fortunate among us. So much for Evangelical Christian principles.

            As I’ve stated to many friends and acquaintances—God is not going to remember you were in the front pew of the church every Sunday. He is going to remember what you did when you walked out the front door.

    • RBHolb

      “Are they so hell bent on defeating the ACA that they would hasten a man’s death?”

      His death would be the first of many they are willing to hasten, just so they can claim a victory over Obama’s legacy.

    • Jim in RF

      As others have said, I hope he lives long enough to regret his vote. Not likely, either way.

  • crystals

    Do as I say, not as I do. (All while I’m enjoying health care that I don’t think the people I represent deserve to have.)
    – John McCain, today.

    • Bridget L.

      Exactly! The hypocrisy is suffocating.

    • MikeB

      “If I say a few critical words to friendly media sources they will ignore how I actually vote”

  • Gary F

    And just think, back in 2008, many in the mainstream press wringed their hands over McCain. He was too extreme to be President. Oh, the media’s love/hate relationship with John McCain.

    • crystals

      That’s not what I remember from 2008. I thought most of the handwringing was over concern that his running-mate was nowhere near qualified to be Vice President, in particular behind a person of his age and medical history, and what that decision said about his judgment.

      I personally find the media to go much further to the “love” side of the column with McCain – despite a record that belies his portrayal as a moderate and maverick.

    • I covered that campaign and this is a substantially false portrayal of it.

      Frankly, his loss in 2008 — he would’ve lost no matter what; Obama was too big a force to be stopped — is partly due to the very factors we saw today. He would jump from standing up to people in his party — the Lakeville woman who insisted Obama was a Muslim — and then bend in the breeze to placate his party’s base by desperately selecting a clear hair-brained knucklehead to be vice president…. then give a concession speech that had people saying, “I would’ve voted for THAT John McCain.” Momentarily armed with the mantle of statesman, he then punted it away in 2009.

      There is style. And there is substance. As Nate Silver pointed out, the aging members of the media love style. It’s more than willing to overlook the lack of substance.

    • Jerry

      People didn’t think McCain was too extreme, they thought he was too erratic. His subsequent actions have not proved them wrong.

  • KTFoley

    I saw John McCain’s questions during James Comey’s Senate hearing in a whole new light once his surgery was announced: his apparent failure to grasp what was talked about in his presence, or to take in Comey’s answers as he gave them, was possibly a symptom of brain injury.

    It may be that this weirdness is the same thing, or it may be that he’d still be oblivious to these glaring contradictions if his brain was completely healthy.

    • Jerry

      This has been his style for a long time. Say a lot of empty words, then do exactly what the party wants.

    • RBHolb

      This has nothing to do with his brain cancer. His career as a “maverick” has always been more sizzle than steak. The signature achievement of his career–campaign finance reform–was a nice distraction from his role in the savings & loan scandal. Otherwise, he’s been a bog standard Republican who talks a big game.

      • Do you remember how absolutely in LOVE with McCain Jon Stewart was on the Daily Show around ’06? Then suddenly, it stopped.

        • RBHolb

          It’s the flip side of “both parties do bad things.” There is always a quest to find an admirable member of the other party, to show that the person speaking is not a blinkered partisan.

          • There was a reference in McCain’s speech that demands translation.

            “My dear friends across the aisle.”

            Gov. Mark Dayton explained this during a meeting with MPR reporters a few years ago, based on his time in the Senate.

            The references and meanings are peculiar.

            “My friends” – is an honest statement of friendships
            “My good friends — is a less admirable portrayal
            “My dear friends” — is the extreme perjorative

            It’s entirely consistent with the dishonesty and passive aggressiveness of the U.S. Senate that hides behind the illusion of a place of great statesmanship and honor.

          • AL287

            Thank you, Bob for that clarification from Mark Dayton.

            It shines a completely different light on the workings of the U.S. Senate!

          • 212944

            Well, bless his (McCain’s) heart.

  • Postal Customer

    I couldn’t take the fawning adoration last week.

    There is not an honest bone in that man’s body.

  • Jack Ungerleider

    I’m late to this discussion, but I’ll add this. Last night Lawrence O’Donnell (MSNBC “The Last Word”) spent the open of his show on the concept of “Regular Order” in the Senate. The vote that McCain is being strung up about was, as O’Donnell and one of his guests, also a former Senate staffer, said was one that didn’t exist until Mitch McConnell forced it to exist when he was minority leader. Under Regular Order in the Senate the motion to proceed was often “pro forma”. The majority leader would present the bill to the Senate and ask unanimous consent that the bill proceed by regular order. The full Senate (or those in attendance) would agree and the bill would be assigned to the appropriate committee for hearings and mark-up (a bipartisan process where amendments are proposed and voted on by the committee.) After the committee process was done it would be voted out of committee for a vote by the full Senate.

    So what McCain voted for was to allow the bills to come to floor outside of regular order. At that point he didn’t vote to take away anyone’s health insurance. It also isn’t really contradictory with his hope that the process will return to Regular Order in the future.

    • No, it’s not contradictory with his HOPE that regular order would return. It’s contradictory with his lament that [edit: “the lack of”] regular order is damaging the process of governing.

      There is the technicality of the legislative process and then there is the “what this really means” aspect of the legislative process and people who vote a certain way often hide from the latter by citing the former.

      That’s what McCain did.

      • Jack Ungerleider

        I believe you mean “lack of regular order is damaging the process”. As I was writing that comment I knew this would be a response, and I don’t disagree with you. But I thought highlighting the discussion they had on “The Last Word” about how it used to work when, in O’Donnell’s opinion the “Senate worked” was useful in this context. For some people the dysfunction of legislative bodies is all they’ve known.

        • FTR, Lawrence O’Donnell’s biggest contribution to politics was playing Jed Bartlett’s abusive father on West Wing. :*)

          • Jack Ungerleider

            I never watched West Wing so I’ll take your word on that. My understanding is he was a staffer/speech writer for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynahan. But I was never much for following the staff of any Senator, so I can only go on what I’ve been told there as well.

  • lindblomeagles

    McCain’s speech is sage advice — our country should work across aisles; there is some things we can agree upon; bombastic voices on TV and Radio aren’t moral compasses anymore than the fictional TV shows and motion picture films are (it’s just entertainment); and McCain is a great orator (I still remember his stirring concession speech in 2008). But leaders MUST DEMONSTRATE their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the team. People follow those who are willing to take the risks they ask others to take. McCain needed to publicly give this speech and end it by voting resoundingly no to moving the bill for debate. He choked. He was (old reference coming here) Bill Buckner, watching the ball sail between his legs to lose the World Series. An opportunity presented itself to John to make a play, and he didn’t. Worse, he returns home (for good reasons) so we and he can’t hold him accountable for fumbling the football at the goal line.

    • The last line of his speech, which was quite well written of course, should have been, “you go first.”

  • Fallows pretty well nailed it, especially pointing out that even his declaration, “I will not vote for this bill as it is today” was a lie. But by then, of course, the video of his speech was already racing across the country and people were already nodding and saying, “he’s right again.”

    So few people noticed that he voted for the bill just as it was.