Early this morning, as John McCain walked into the Senate chamber to cast what would be a deciding vote to kill the bill to repeal major stabilizing provisions of the Affordable Care Act and defund Planned Parenthood for one year, he told reporters to “watch the show.”
When the time came to cast his vote, he gestured slowly. He raised his arm, hand hovering in a neutral position for a beat, then pointed down with his thumb. It was theater, and he was rewarded for it with rapturous reviews. Democrats applauded. Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, tweeted that he had run into McCain on his way to the floor and would someday tell his grandkids “what he said to me.” The mythologizing of a man who only days before had voted to turn a process to determine how millions of people live or die in this country into an anti-democratic farce had begun.
Hours later, the headlines looked like this:
John McCain: Watch the stunning moment the leading Republican Senator votes ‘no’ to Obamacare Repeal Bill
McCain’s actions this week, from his dramatic return to the Senate after undergoing surgery for an aggressive form of brain cancer to his floor speech about decorum and process, to his role in the final vote, have been a spectacle. He turned the mortal circumstances faced by millions of other people—the bankruptcy, illness, suffering, and preventable death that awaits if their insurance collapses—into, as he put it, a “show.” For playing his part so perfectly, he was literally applauded.
It makes for a fitting segue into a weekend where, on the other side of the country, a convention center in Pasadena was readied for Politicon, a festival billed as the “Coachella of politics.” Those with tickets—$80 for general admission, $300 for the VIP package—will get to watch as Tomi Lahren, who once made her living delivering racist monologues on The Blaze network but was fired after briefly identifying as pro-choice, debates Symone Sanders, who was the national press secretary for Bernie Sander’s presidential campaign. (As the website puts it: “The battle for the future of our country is here and how better to decide it than in a no-holds-barred, one-on-one debate with no topic off limits between Tomi Lahren and Symone Sanders?”) Ann Coulter, currently in her third decade of inexplicable relevance, will debate someone. Chelsea Handler is there for some reason. There are parties and sponsors and swag. When it’s over, people will clap, just as they did for John McCain.
Meanwhile, outside of the Pasadena Convention Center and the halls of Congress, countless Americans watched the incoherent theatrics of these last months with an acute sense of dread and deep panic.
“Right now, my youngest, who is about to turn one, is having seizures. We’ve made trips to the emergency room, we’ve seen a pediatric neurologist and a pediatric cardiologist because her EKG showed an abnormal wave,” Nikki Brooks, a stay-at-home mother in Kansas whose children are covered by Medicaid, told me earlier this month. “I can’t even imagine what our medical bills would be without Medicaid. It would be astronomical. You get to the point eventually where you have make decisions like, can we pay the mortgage this month?”
“I lost my health coverage two weeks after I was diagnosed with cancer. I was only able to get coverage because of the clause about pre-existing conditions,” Carrie Denny, a nurse in Tennessee, told me around the same time. “I would have been bankrupt or dead or both” without Obamacare, she said. “I am not being dramatic, I am being realistic.”
For millions of people in this country, including the protesters from across the country who went to Washington to put their bodies down to resist the public policy disaster that McCain and his colleagues nearly unleashed upon them, these months felt less like a show and more like a very real threat to the lives they’ve built for themselves and their families—lives that are often already precariously held together.
And the future of the healthcare law—and the millions of people who still don’t have meaningful access to medical care in this country, even with the ACA in place—remains just as uncertain today as it was yesterday. It might be a show to John McCain. That doesn’t mean the rest of us should treat it like one.