Way back in 2004, when America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were still in their infancy, Arizona Sen. John McCain recommended that his Republican colleagues in Washington back away from tax cuts as a sign of national sacrifice for the war efforts.
His words infuriated House Republicans, many of whom saw him as insufficiently patriotic to the GOP cause and some of whom liked to whisper that his ordeal as a prisoner of war in Vietnam wasn’t all that bad.
Then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a contemporary of McCain’s who had managed to avoid Vietnam service because of a sports injury, acted as their voice and suggested publicly that McCain knew nothing of sacrifice, that “McCain ought to visit our young men and women at Walter Reed and Bethesda” — two military hospitals in the Washington area — so he could see in person what others had sacrificed on the battlefield.
Having spent more than five years being tortured in a Vietnamese prison camp, refusing to be released ahead of his comrades, it can be safely said that McCain needed no reminder of the perils of military service in times of war. Any casual observer can see the marks of torture in McCain’s gait and the loss of mobility in his arms.
Now, 13 years after Hastert’s offensive abrogation of Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment (never speak ill of a fellow Republican), the House GOP is livid with McCain once again.
His dramatic wee-hours vote to stop a diluted version of the Obamacare “repeal and replace” bill killed their hopes of delivering on a seven-year-old promise to their constituents — one made so long ago that many of them hadn’t yet run for federal office when it became the party’s chief political battle cry.
In this moment, House Republicans would be wise to remember how many people have gone up against McCain when he’s occupied the moral high ground and how few have come out victorious.
For several hours Thursday, it looked like he might bow to political pressure. Earlier in the day, he and colleagues Lindsey Graham and Ron Johnson had declared that they wouldn’t vote for the “skinny” repeal bill without a promise from Speaker Paul Ryan that the House wouldn’t just take up that version and pass it. They wanted an assurance that the Senate bill, which Graham called the “dumbest” legislation ever, would just be a starting point for negotiations between the chambers.
It was perhaps the most politically craven position taken in the Senate in dozens of years. These three publicly admitted they would vote for a cruel bill that would boost health insurance premiums by 20 percent in the first year and result in 16 million people losing insurance in service of a process designed to take insurance away from 20 million or 30 million Americans — and rewrite Medicaid to ensure it was less generous to the poor and sick. Graham and Johnson promised their votes as soon as Ryan pledged to keep the more ambitious goal alive.
Not McCain. I can’t say for sure why McCain sided with Democrats and just two of his GOP colleagues. On the Senate floor a few days ago, he acknowledged he’s sometimes voted one way or the other just to stick it to a political adversary. Perhaps, as he chuckled with Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer on Thursday night, he’d cut some sort of practical deal to advance the defense authorization bill that he oversees.
But know this about McCain: There’s nothing that drives him more than his sense of honor. And he clearly concluded the more honorable thing was to vote against the highly unpopular repeal-and-replace plan.
Whether that honor was in service to Americans in need, his defense bill or perhaps the long-term interests of a GOP that had walked to the edge of the plank, the Navy veteran wouldn’t let his fellow Republicans jump into the chaotic seas below.
I fully expect he’ll be excoriated for weeks and months to come. But McCain has faced down tougher foes than his Republican colleagues — in the political arena and in life-or-death situations.
His willingness — his need — to stand alone on the high ground often makes others lose their senses when they talk about him.
Donald Trump and Wesley Clark criticized him for getting shot down in the first place during the Vietnam War. In 2005, Rep. Sam Johnson, who shared a cell with McCain in Hanoi and nonetheless had endorsed George W. Bush over him in the 2000 presidential primaries, tried to get House Republicans to back a letter opposing McCain’s effort to outlaw torture; not a single member signed his or her name. No one else had the standing to take on the war hero.
That word “hero” gets thrown around a lot. McCain doesn’t use it about himself. And votes in the clubby confines of the Senate simply don’t amount to heroism.
But in the face of tremendous political pressure from the party he represented in the 2008 presidential campaign, McCain did the right thing. Whatever his reasons, he stands as a champion for millions of Americans who would have been harmed by the Senate bill and millions more who would suffer at the hands of any House-Senate compromise.
Those who find it impossible to hold back their hostility are charging at a guy who knows how to find and hold the high ground.
Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is a co-author of “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 16 years.