John McCain and the essential bipartisan impulse

I eagerly anticipated the evening of Tuesday, November 4, 1986 for months. As a 20-year-old political science major and political junkie, Election Day was (and remains) one of my favorite days of the year. Plus, as a lifelong Democrat, I was particularly excited by the prospect the Democrats could win the net four seats necessary to regain control of the United States Senate (“Senate”) for the first time since 1980.

In my memory, I watched a small black-and-white television set in my small room high in the “tower” of Ezra Stiles (my residential college at Yale)—but it is far more likely I listened to the returns on the radio.

Ezra Stiles tower October 1988

It did not take too late into the night to learn the Democrats would actually flip a net of eight seats—giving them a 55-45 advantage. I vividly recall jubilantly shouting “eight seats!” into the telephone at my then-girlfriend, a fellow Democrat.

Somewhat lost in my celebration, however, was that Arizona had elected John McCain, a 50-year old Republican member of the United States House of Representatives (“House”), to replace retiring Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican nominee for president.

Senator McCain would exist on the periphery of my political consciousness for much of the next 10 years—surfacing mostly as a tangential player in the Keating Five scandal and as a vocal critic of President Bill Clinton’s Balkans policy.

Then, in the spring of 1996, “Focus writer” Scot Lehigh wrote a long article in the Boston Globe[1] speculating that the Republican Party, sensing doom for its near-certain presidential nominee, Senator Robert Dole of Kansas, would turn late in its August nominating convention to an entirely new ticket.

Here is the key passage:

Midnight [Wednesday, August 15, 1996]. There’s commotion on stage. The lights dim, and [Republican Party Chair Haley] Barbour walks to the lectern. ‘I’d like to introduce the ticket we hope will lead the GOP on to victory,’ he begins. ‘A former Navy pilot, a Vietnam War hero, a patriot, a stalwart in the Senate, I give you Arizona Sen. John McCain. And with him, Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.’ The two senators, still shell shocked by developments, mount the podium. The crowd, not quite believing what it has wrought, responds with some cheers, some hisses, uncertain applause.

For a moment, it appears the convention won’t be won over. Then Dole emerges from the shadows, strides toward McCain and raises the senator’s hand in the air. An explosion of applause wells from the crowd and washes over the stage in appreciation both for Dole’s grace and for the new start he has given his party. In short order, the Arizona delegation moves that McCain and Hutchison be nominated by acclamation – and the GOP has a new ticket.”

This was one of my first hints there was a broader appeal to Senator McCain, certainly in comparison to Dole, who would lose to Clinton 49.2% to 40.7%, winning only 159 Electoral College votes (EV) to Clinton’s 379. However, despite the gloomiest predictions, Republicans actually netted three Senate seats while only losing a net of four House seats. As I have written elsewhere, the Democrats were becoming the “White House” party while the Republicans were becoming the “legislative” party. As usual, federal election data come from Dave Leip’s indispensable Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections and here.

Three years later, Senator McCain announced his candidacy for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, which Texas Governor George W. Bush appeared to have nailed down. McCain vowed to make campaign finance reform—an effort he pursued with Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin—a centerpiece of his campaign. I remember watching the months leading up to the 2000 New Hampshire primary from neighboring Massachusetts as “maverick” John McCain seemed literally to embody the words on his campaign bus, engaging in freewheeling town hall meetings and gabbing with the press.

straight talk express 2000

I found myself riveted by this Republican Senator who bucked his party on campaign finance reform, called out the tobacco companies for lying about the health risks of their products, and seemed to eschew negative campaigning. As the first nomination votes approached in Iowa and New Hampshire, I was rooting strongly for McCain to face Democratic Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey in November. I thought the two men would engage in an honorable, issues-oriented discussion in the fall—sharp-edged at times to be sure—but civil nonetheless. (In the interest of full transparency, I still would have wanted Bradley to prevail).

With no disrespect intended toward Vice President Al Gore or then-Governor Bush, I genuinely believed (hoped?) a Bradley-McCain race would best reflect this statement on my home page:

“I am grateful to everyone who…comments in a respectful way: it really is possible to disagree without being disagreeable.”

However, despite McCain upsetting Bush in the 2000 New Hampshire primary, 48.5% to 30.4% while Bradley only lost to Gore by 4.1 percentage points, Bush and Gore were the ultimate nominees. And we all know how that race ended.

Still, McCain’s bipartisan status only increased when Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, repeatedly asked McCain to consider being his running mate. And in 2008, when McCain finally achieved his goal of becoming the Republican presidential nominee, his first choice for running mate was Democratic-turned-Independent Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut—Gore’s running mate just eight years earlier. That he rather rashly chose Alaska Governor Sarah Palin instead is a serious blot on McCain’s legacy and arguably helped trigger the election of Republican Donald Trump as president in 2016.

By the same token, Senator McCain’s finest moment in the 2008 race, which he ultimately lost to Illinois Senator Barack Obama 52.9% to 45.6% (365-173 EV), may well have been this exchange with some ill-informed voters:

Flash forward to the summer of 2017, when the Senate was nearing a final vote to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”). In what was less a policy argument and more a “restoration of norms” argument, Senator McCain hinted at what would ultimately be a “no” vote. [For the record, McCain mischaracterizes how Obamacare was passed…but his larger point stands.]

In many ways, this was John McCain’s bipartisan curtain call.

**********

During my last session with my psychotherapist, amidst a discussion of these unresolved questions, I suddenly veered into my reaction to McCain’s death. Put simply, this staunch liberal Democrat was utterly heartbroken.

My therapist suggested I am far from alone.

Over the last few days, I watched a series of impassioned tributes to Senator McCain. Former Vice President Joe Biden remembered his close friend in the Senate, recalling how the two former colleagues were admonished in the mid-1990s by party leadership for sitting next to each other during floor debates (an early sign of the slow-motion death of civil political discourse). I teared up at Biden’s everyman eloquence, as I did watching former Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, as well as Meghan McCain, eulogize their former political rival and father, respectively.

I urge you to watch each of these speeches and consider not only the extraordinary bipartisan settings in which they were delivered but also that Senator McCain pointedly asked two men who defeated him for the presidency—one Democrat and one Republican—to eulogize him.

**********

It is a hopeful fact that my reaction to Trump’s victory was not to retreat further into my partisan Democratic camp, but rather to do what each of these four speakers above fervently recommended: be an American first and a partisan a distant second while viewing political opponents as fellow citizens who happen to hold different points of view.

And so I close with some of my own recent calls for the bipartisan impulse (if not necessarily results).

For example, in my first substantive post I presented my bipartisan “bona fides,” concluding:

“The point of this stroll through the first half of my life is that as a strong partisan Democrat, I could still find common ground with many Republicans. On a personal level, one of my closest friends in high school was a staunch Republican who loved Reagan as much as I loved Walter Mondale. Mondale was my first presidential vote, in 1984, and still one of my proudest.”

The following June, I reflected on two very different conversations:

“The Vale Rio Diner no longer sits at the intersection of Route 23 and Route 113N, while Zaftigs just celebrated its 40th anniversary.

“Two very different encounters in those two very different eateries leave me with this question: When do you stick to deeply-held principles, and when do you set them aside to advance the common good?

“The answer may have something to do with lowering your voice, listening to other points of view and questioning your own certainty.”

Over the next few months, as noted above, about the three Republican Senators who bravely voted against repealing Obamacare and about the profound lack of civility on sites like Twitter.

This past June, I was at it again.

First, I argued bipartisanship is an act of patriotism, declaring my intention to vote in November 2018 to reelect Republican Charlie Baker as governor of Massachusetts.

“Here is also why I will be voting for Baker in four+ months.

“If I am calling on select Republicans to defy their President and work in a bipartisan fashion with Democrats, it would be massively hypocritical for me not to support a more-than-reasonable Republican who has done exactly that. Every time I cheer a former Republican speaking out against the President on MSNBC, I need to be able to match that gesture with one of my own.

“Simply put, I cannot ask someone to do something—be actively bipartisan—without being willing to do the same thing myself.

“Moreover, the only way to break down the tribalist partisanship that causes us to see persons with the wrong ‘label’ as a mortal enemy is to elevate bipartisanship into an act of patriotism.

“The stakes of the Cold War were so monumental that partisanship was supposed to stop at the water’s edge: there was to be no squabbling over matters of life and death. While that was not always true, particularly as the Vietnam War divided the Democratic Party and Democrats took President Ronald Reagan to task for his aggressively anti-Soviet Union posturing, that credo still serves as an excellent model for reimagining bipartisanship as patriotism.

“Would I still vote for Baker if he were not heavily favored to win, meaning Nell’s and my votes will in no way be decisive? I do not know, to be honest. But were he not so effective AND anti-Trump, he would not be so popular, so the question kind of answers itself.

“It is exceptionally difficult for lifelong partisans like me—this will only be the second time I vote Republican—even to consider opposing point of view (though it can be done), let alone voting for a candidate of the opposite party. But I firmly believe these actions are the best—maybe the only—ways to begin to solve our current epistemological crisis.”

One week later, I renewed my call for a bipartisan “coalition of the center” to form in the Senate:

“I have previously called for cross-partisan dialogue—patriotic bipartisanship. After President Trump was elected, I also began proposing a “coalition of the center” to form in the Senate that would wield an effective veto over legislation, forcing broad compromises by both parties. Such a group could consist of “red-state” Democrats like Donnelly, Heitkamp, Doug Jones (AL—R+28.4), Manchin, Claire McCaskill (MO—R+15.9) and Jon Tester (MT—R+18.6); Independent Angus King (ME—D+5.9); and Republicans like Susan Collins (ME—D+5.9), Lisa Murkowski (AK—R+19.2) and, perhaps, Cory Gardner (CO—D+2.2).

“Were this bloc (or even the smaller bloc of Donnelly, Heitkamp, Jones, Manchin, Collins and Murkowski) to insist, unequivocally, that President Trump select…

“’…a consensus nominee to replace Kennedy. “[Senator Heitkamp] told the president that he has a chance to unite the country by nominating a true non-ideological jurist who could gain strong support from senators on both sides of the aisle, rather than create more divisions…’

“…they would elevate the traditional ‘advice and consent’ role of the Senate above partisan rancor and force both parties to compromise, in effect restoring the judicial nomination filibuster.

“Now, this would infuriate the conservatives who voted for Donald Trump (and President Trump himself) solely for the opportunity to remake SCOTUS in their image (though they still ‘won’ with Gorsuch). And it would disappoint the liberal activists who want every Senate Democrat to resist President Trump at every turn (though this is easily the least-worst nominee they will get in 2018). But those may be the necessary costs of restoring civil order to our public discourse.”

In retrospect, I should have included Senator John McCain in that group—though I could also argue that he was already a key voting bloc all by himself, a rare Senator whose support can make or break legislation by itself.

That one-man bloc is no longer with us, and it is clear why McCain’s death so broke my heart (despite rarely agreeing with him on policy and not voting for him in 2008):

He was the living embodiment of the bipartisan impulse I have strived to articulate for nearly two years, the simple notion that you treat all political opponents with respect and decency, while expecting the same in return (and, yes, there are limits to this impulse).

Without John McCain’s guidance, we each must work harder than ever to embody that impulse.

Rest in peace, Senator. You served your country honorably.

Until next time…

[1] Lehigh, Scot, “Unconventional thinking: Is it possible that Dole might not get the GOP nod?” Boston Globe (Boston, MA), May 19, 1996, pp. 65-67.

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