Senator John McCain, recovering from surgery for an aggressive brain tumor, entered the Senate at the last minute today to cast a decisive vote to proceed with debate on the secretive Republican healthcare bill. The exact effect of this noble act of surely painful self-sacrifice remains to be seen, because we still haven’t seen the fucking bill, but it’s certain to create chaos and spread untold misery, through dramatically rising premiums or an insurance market death spiral or, in the worst cases, the end of pre-existing conditions coverage and the slow death of Medicaid.
Knowing this, knowing full well what he was there to do—to hand Democrats a huge loss that will likely have the effect of materially and physically harming many of their constituents, as part of an incredibly cynical legislative process carried out under the assumption that Republicans are electorally immune to any blowback that might come from exploding norms of political behavior in service of an agenda rejected by most voters—the Democrats applauded him.
Cory Booker even hugged him.
There is no doubt that today’s villains are Senate Republicans; they are the ones forcing through this miserable agenda. Shelley Moore Capito and Dean Heller, who wavered and then voted yes, deserve the highest levels of scorn. But why would Democrats applaud the man who made it possible? What exactly were they applauding, if not his actual vote?
The answer, as always, is civility and The Democratic Process. We may not agree on policy, but surely we can agree that it’s good to be nice to your friends and co-workers. Sure, his vote was in support of an effort to make the lives and deaths of millions of Americans even more miserable, but hey, it was brave of him just to show up, wasn’t it? They’re not just applauding McCain himself—they’re applauding an idea of America, of an elected representative and war hero battling the odds to return to our hallowed chamber of democracy and... do a horrible, horrible thing.
McCain didn’t just show up to cast a symbolic vote naming an aircraft carrier after Ronald Reagan or something. He came because he was an integral part of a shockingly cynical strategy of mass deception and dishonesty as a means of forcing through a rollback of the Democratic agenda. His presence was a fuck-you to Democrats. He might have risked or dramatically shortened his own life to support and give cover to a strategy of total partisan warfare, all while clearly not caring about the actual, real world effects of his vote.
To applaud that is indefensible, morally and politically. What does it say to the American people? All it tells them is that for Senate Democrats, style—comity, respect for our rivals, debate club pieties—matters more than outcomes. That is not a winning message.
We live in a world of the elite’s making. This is more true for the poor and the disenfranchised than anyone else. If you’re rich, and you don’t like a new tax policy or a foreign war, you can evade the taxes, avoid fighting in the war, and donate huge sums to your leaders’ opponents. If you’re really rich, you can buy citizenship somewhere else or build a big-ass James Bond villain fortress island, and laser-blast anyone who tries to get in. If you’re too poor to afford health insurance, let alone moving abroad or even to another state, you’re basically stuck. If you’re too tired after working 50 hours a week to feed your family, you probably don’t even have a lot of time or energy to phone your congressman or write to them.
These are people for whom the sight of Senate Democrats hugging their ostensible political rival isn’t a heartwarming scene reminding us all that some things Transcend Politics. That sight is merely more evidence that politicians care more about one another than they do about the American people. Democrats have a moral responsibility to make the case that the Republican Party isn’t merely wrong about a few things, it’s an actively harmful and dangerous force in American politics. It’s harder to make that case after you hug a guy enabling their worst abuses of power.
Democrats might know and like John McCain as a person. It might be sad for them, personally, that he’s sick. But to people not in the Senate or the “Meet the Press” green room, he’s not a good and decent man with a brain tumor who we happen to disagree with on a few matters. He’s a man with a brain tumor who just voted to strip healthcare from millions, who couldn’t explain why he thinks that’s a good idea and who doesn’t give a shit about how it happens. The Democrats’ responsibilities to the poor and disenfranchised should not be put aside to clap for their good buddy right after he finishes voting to fuck the poor and disenfranchised over.