Over the weekend, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar told an Iowa crowd an anecdote about sitting next to the late Sen. John McCain during President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
“John McCain kept reciting to me names of dictators during that speech because he knew more than any of us what we were facing as a nation, he understood it,” Klobuchar said. “He knew because he knew this man more than any of us did.”
That brought a swift response from Meghan McCain – on behalf of the entire McCain family: “On behalf of the entire McCain family - @amyklobuchar please be respectful to all of us and leave my fathers legacy and memory out of presidential politics.”
That back-and-forth is part of a broader effort by major political figures in both parties to lay claim to what the late Arizona senator “meant” to both politics and America. It’s a debate that has been bubbling since even before McCain’s death in August 2018, but has picked up steam of late as both Trump and the men and women seeking to replace him in 2020 seek to define what the longtime Arizona senator meant to politics – and whether he should be a paradigm or a punch line.
Trump has long used McCain as a punching bag – both during the Arizona senator’s battle with brain cancer and even after his death. Trump famously/infamously attacked McCain in the earliest days of his 2016 campaign by, stunningly, questioning whether or not the Arizona senator, who spent five years in a North Vietnamese prison camp was a real hero. “He’s not a war hero,” said Trump. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” (Trump received five deferments and never served in the military.)
Stumping for Republican candidates in the 2018 midterms, Trump repeatedly invoked McCain’s last-minute decision to oppose the so-called “skinny repeal” of the Affordable Care Act – casting it as an act of betrayal that robbed Republicans of a major victory. Trump has continued to bash McCain for that vote as he ramps up his own 2020 candidacy.
At a rally in Montoursville, Pennsylvania, earlier this month, Trump said this: “The worst part of Obamacare and we almost had it repealed and replaced but we had one man that after campaigning for eight years. He decided to go thumbs down at 2 o’clock in the morning. That’s all right.”
Trump does it because, well, it works. The pro-Trump crowd loves his shots at McCain, who they – and he – view as a RINO (Republican In Name Only) who betrayed core principles of the GOP again and again in order to be liked by Democrats and the media. Trump has, from the start. cast himself as a sort of anti-McCain – someone unconcerned with what the other side (or the media) thinks of him, rejecting the cries of the PC police in favor of pursuing an agenda that comports with the pillars of the Republican Party. (There’s lot there that isn’t accurate, of course. Trump cares nothing about debt and deficit, for example, which had long been a pillar of conservative politics. And he deeply cares what the media thinks of him, even while attacking the “fake news.”)
But as the 2020 Democratic race has begun to develop, McCain’s legacy has begun to be something they, too, seek to define.
For Democrats, McCain – in death even more than in life – has come to symbolize a different and better Republican Party that has been destroyed by Trump. McCain, in Klobuchar’s retelling, understood that while Trump was a Republican, the two men shared nothing in common. McCain sought to put country over party. Trump put self over country, party and everything else.
There was even a report, which turned out to be erroneous, that Meghan and Cindy McCain, the late senator’s widow, would endorse Joe Biden’s presidential campaign against Trump. In late April, Cindy tweeted this: “Joe Biden is a wonderful man and dear friend of the McCain Family. However, I have no intention of getting involved in presidential politics.”
Despite Meghan McCain’s urgings, my guess is that this is not the last we will hear about candidates using McCain as a sort of virtue-signaling – either to a GOP base that loathes him or to a Democratic base that sees him as the antithesis of the current occupant of the White House. It speaks to McCain’s larger-than-life presence in our political – and broader – culture: that even in death, the fight over what his life meant continues.