Among the many triumphs of John McCain’s long political career was that he proved George Washington Plunkitt wrong.
Plunkitt was known as the sage of Tammany Hall, the political machine that controlled New York City during the late-19th-century heyday of boss politics in big cities across the country. He embodied the bosses’ contempt for the gentlemen reformers who decried the corruption and squalor of municipal politics.
To Plunkitt, down in the trenches of the daily scramble for influence and power – with perhaps a little of what he called “honest graft” on the side – reformers were “like morning glories,” flowers that bloomed briefly and then quickly withered. Like generations of everyday politicians before and since, Plunkitt believed reformers didn’t have the stamina or commitment to stay in the fight until the final bell.
McCain was the most conspicuous exception in our time to Plunkitt’s rule. The Arizona Republican’s political career swerved wildly between highs and lows, between moments of high purpose and personal pique. But over his 35 years in Washington he rarely lost his zest for combat behind his favored causes: fighting the influence of special interests, building bipartisan coalitions to tackle big problems like immigration and climate change, and maintaining a forceful American presence in the world.
At various points, he fought tobacco companies, oil companies, health insurers, big campaign donors, defense contractors, the Pentagon, his own party’s Senate leadership and presidents from both parties. Even with the minutes ticking down in what proved his final round, McCain delivered a haymaker behind his vision of a more consensual politics when he cast a decisive vote against the effort from President Donald Trump and Republican leaders to repeal the Affordable Care Act on a party-line basis. McCain clawed, scratched and bled for his beliefs.
The other Republicans who share McCain’s unease over Trump’s direction for the party could learn something from that example.
McCain’s record places him clearly on one side of a central divide in American political history. The historian John Milton Cooper, in his classic 1983 joint biography of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, identified them as the archetypes of two breeds of reformer: the warrior (Roosevelt) who reveled in political combat, and the priest (Wilson) who found it vaguely distasteful, like raised voices at a faculty tea.
Through American history, most reformers have fallen into the priest category. Think of Minnesota’s Sen. Eugene McCarthy and President Jimmy Carter, and even in some ways President Barack Obama. The priests are often eloquent and sometimes visionary: They imagine new possibilities and focus moral outrage on old wrongs. But they are often undercut by their distaste for the nitty-gritty work of politics itself, the grimy marshaling of majorities in legislatures or the electorate through compromise and calculation. They often look as though they fear getting their feet wet in the swamp of ambition and self-interest that all politicians must wade through.
Reformers with a touch of the warrior have been much more uncommon in American history; the few examples besides Theodore Roosevelt (one of McCain’s self-described heroes) could include President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and some of the great Progressive-era Republican insurgents like Wisconsin Gov. and US Sen. Robert M. La Follette.
But there was no question McCain belonged in this camp. Riding the “Straight Talk Express” in his 2000 bid for the Republican presidential nomination, he displayed great tenacity and creativity to generate an unexpectedly formidable challenge to George W. Bush, who began the race with huge advantages in organization, money and name identification as the son of a former president. In the years before, and especially immediately after that 2000 race, McCain served as the Republican linchpin for a succession of bipartisan Senate alliances that passed legislation into law on rights for patients, campaign finance revisions and banning torture.
Twice he keyed bipartisan coalitions that passed comprehensive immigration overhaul legislation through the Senate – before House Republicans refused each time to consider the bills – and he led an early effort to build bipartisan consensus on another difficult issue that has still stymied Congress: combating the risks of global climate change. Working often with Democratic allies, particularly Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut), McCain balanced a commitment to core conservative beliefs – strong national defense, limiting federal spending, banning abortion – with a flexibility that allowed him to reach across the steadily widening divide between the parties.
His enthusiasm for such compromise waned when he ran again for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008: He followed the party’s move toward the right by renouncing his earlier support for immigration restructuring and opposition to President George W. Bush’s tax cuts. And despite his eloquent and unifying concession speech after Obama’s election, McCain proved much less willing than many expected to help broker bipartisan deals with the man who defeated him – with the immigration bill that passed in 2013 as a big exception.
At times, it seemed McCain steered his course as much through personal relations as policy convictions: He was an energetic “maverick” deal-maker when that irritated Bush, the man who beat him in 2000, and mostly a reliable partisan when that hurt Obama, the man who defeated him eight years later. (During Obama’s presidency, McCain often looked a little like Achilles sulking in his tent in the Trojan War.)
Yet McCain never wavered on one critical point. Beyond any of his specific policy preferences, he prioritized above all notions of duty, service and a common American identity rooted in shared ideals and obligations. He resisted, most memorably in a 2008 town hall, the right’s growing impulse to portray America’s historic traditions as under siege from racial and social change – and Obama as the ominous advance guard of that larger transition.
McCain’s resistance to that conviction became especially relevant in his final years as Trump seized control of the GOP precisely by consolidating support from the voters most unsettled by the demographic, cultural and economic changes relentlessly reconfiguring American life. It’s on that front where McCain’s loss will be felt most acutely.
None of Trump’s other Republican critics – such as Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee or Ohio Gov. John Kasich – has the credibility that McCain accrued through a lifetime of military and civic service to stamp Trump’s divisive instincts as a violation of American ideals. And none has McCain’s warrior instinct to fight with every weapon, for every moment, until the final bell – and even after.
For months, critics like Corker, Flake and Kasich have complained about Trump’s direction without employing any of the tools they have available to impose consequences for it; in Cooper’s formulation they have looked far more like ineffectual priests than indomitable warriors. McCain showed the alternative path with his vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act, not because he supported the law, but because he opposed the hyper-partisan process through which repeal had advanced. And this week, he offered a powerful concluding example of what commitment to a cause looks like.
On Monday, more than a day after his death, McCain got in a last word when an aide read an eloquent “final statement” from him that derided Trump’s racially infused nationalism in unmistakable terms: “We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil,” McCain’s statement declared. “We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down.”
Somewhere, Theodore Roosevelt probably smiled – not only at the sentiments, but also at the determination of McCain, his fellow warrior, to strike one last blow for his beliefs, even from beyond the grave.
Editor’s note: Brownstein had covered McCain since his arrival in the House of Representatives in 1983. His wife, Eileen McMenamin, served as communications director in McCain’s Senate office during part of President George W. Bush’s second term.