Heroes of the Health Care Wars?
By Madeleine H. Burnside
I am a little bit insulted by the emails I’ve gotten this week from various progressive groups, saluting me as “a healthcare hero.” I’m not. Let’s not kid about this—I take my resistance seriously and don’t need to be patronized or flattered when I’m unable to be effective. I’m not saying I didn’t call my senators—of course I did. I’m saying I knew that my calls would not have any effect on the outcome. Bill Nelson is a sure thing and Rubio isn’t going to change his spots. Save it for the people who have been sitting-in in other districts. Perhaps they got somewhere.
If there are heroes, it’s the Republican senators who crossed the aisle: Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine, and, in a surprise move caught in a video gone viral, John McCain of Arizona.
Murkowski stated her positions early enough for Donald Trump to try to blackmail her into obedience. She held firm. Collins is the senator most likely to break rank with her party, so Trump has probably given up on her.
Trump tweeted how brave McCain was. Apparently, McCain was returning to D.C. in order to nix the ACA only two weeks after surgery for brain cancer. Meanwhile, my side of the press and social media had a load of nasty things to say about McCain’s hypocrisy—how his generous Senate benefits package had paid for some of the best medical care available but he was going to vote against “the little people.” Like Trump, we never doubted McCain would support Trumpcare-lite.
I’m not McCain’s biggest fan, but not a major detractor either. He fought in a war I protested, but I gave him big points for choosing to stay behind with his fellow prisoners, knowing he would be punished with torture. I also admired that he forged a friendship with John Kerry as they worked to resolve the POW/MIA question once and for all.
I was pleasantly surprised when, earlier this week, McCain opposed Trump’s transgender military ban, saying, “There is no reason to force service members who are able to fight, train, and deploy to leave the military—regardless of their gender identity. We should all be guided by the principle that any American who wants to serve our country and is able to meet the standards should have the opportunity to do so—and should be treated as the patriots they are." He didn’t need to say anything, but he did.
He spoke out because he knows he’s the go-to military guy of his generation. He is defined by his Vietnam experience, sometimes to his own detriment. George W. Bush won his party’s nomination back in the day by implying that his rival, McCain, was mentally unfit because he had never recovered from being tortured. It was a low blow, and I’m probably not alone in saying that I think McCain would have made the better president.
Then, under Bush II, I despised McCain for being a war hawk and, despite all his fine words about the un-Americanness of torture, for voting against the 2008 Intelligence Authorization Act that would have banned waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques.” In doing so he became a party to war crimes--and he certainly knew better about the utility of torture, having been forced into making a false confession himself.
Then there’s his membership in the Keating Five. In 1989, despite his straight-arrow persona, he faced corruption allegations when the American Continental Corporation and its subsidiary Lincoln Savings and Loan collapsed, companies both owned by Charles Keating. The failure cost taxpayers $3.4 billion and precipitated the Savings and Loan scandal that destroyed the lives of thousands of small investors. Of the five senators involved, McCain was the only personal friend of Keating’s and the recipient of his largest campaign donations. He got off with a rebuke.
And then there’s elevating Sarah Palin. Chosen in haste, regretted forever. Please, John, puh-leez!
So I have a complicated relationship with McCain (it’s not mutual—I’m pretty sure he’s not among my readers). I usually don’t agree with his positions, he’s tainted as an honest broker, but now I worry about him. Not because he’s going to die (I am too, but hopefully that will be later), but because he’s going to be incapacitated. Not usually a grandstander, he had something in mind when he returned to the Capitol for the ACA vote. There he was, faintly piratical with a long, livid scar forming a third eyebrow. He spoke out against the process of the ACA repeal—the secrecy and the despicable “better than nothing” attitude of his GOP colleagues.
McCain’s vote recalled Bob Dole’s appearance on the Senate floor in a wheel chair in 2012, just six days after he was released from the hospital. His arrival was also dramatic—everyone assumed he would be too incapacitated to attend. Dole had worked with John Kerry to get the U.S. to join the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. His empty sleeve, tucked into his pocket, symbolized not only his handicap but also the sacrifices of the entire World War II generation. I didn’t remember the bill’s other Republican supporters until I looked them up. Interestingly, these included McCain as well as Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and five others.
This time McCain’s vote was different. He went out of his way to make Trump look foolish. In a strategic move, he kept his own counsel all week. He wasn’t going to be the subject of Trump’s bullying, and he wasn’t going to let Mitch McConnell pull the bill to save face, as he would have if he’d known there weren’t enough votes to pass it. And he wasn't going to give a heads-up to us, the mosquito media of the Left.
When reporters spotted McCain around 11pm that night, they asked him how he planned to vote. “Wait for the show,” he told them. Oh yeah…
When the time came, McCain walked to the front of the chamber to make sure his thumbs-down gesture was caught on camera. “No,” he shouted, loud enough to be heard in the press gallery. I’ve watched the video five times now and the gasp from the GOP senators is still a thrill. Possibly he found it even more satisfying than I did.
When asked why he voted as he did, McCain told a reporter, “I thought it was the right thing to do.” The vote might have been the right thing but the strategy and grand gesture were pure payback. I can’t imagine he would ever like Donald Trump, but just in case, Trump made that impossible when he dissed McCain personally. Trump, the draft-dodger, stepped over the line when he mocked McCain, saying, “He's not a war hero. He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured." He’s also referred to him as “a loser” and a “dummy.” Not so fast…Measured, sometimes disappointing, McCain has consistently led the slow but growing Republican opposition to Trump.
So, despite my mixed feelings about him, I was hoping he’d be around for a while. No other Republican has the stature or the brass to stand up to Trump and make news—it wasn’t a tweet, it was better: a viral video. And a sweet goodbye.