With a last-ditch gimmick to get a ‘quick win’ on repealing and replacing Obamacare before the summer recess in the balance, Senator John McCain stood before his senate colleagues last week to deliver a classic speech on bi-partisanship and parliamentary procedure. While casually mentioning his own existential health struggles, with the bland understatement, “I look a little worse for the wear,” McCain demonstrated a display of fortitude and valor that is rarely ever seen in Washington anymore.
The effort to repeal and replace Obamacare is an exceedingly low bar for the White House and Senate Republicans to clear. After already fundamentally shifting the rules to achieve the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court earlier this year, requiring a mere 51 vote majority to confirm instead of 60 votes, the Senate still could not reach a consensus.
Senator McCain’s valiant stand was aided in part by the blow-back the President received from his attempt to publicly disgrace his own Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, last week. Sessions agreement to recuse himself from the Russia investigation because of possible conflicts of interest received little opposition from the President at the time, because he apparently believed that firing General Mike Flynn and distancing the AG would be enough to put to bed controversy over possibly improper relationships with the Russian government leading up the election in November.
But it is not as if McCain and Trump do not have a history. Trump famously insulted McCain early in his campaign, rejecting his war hero status because he was captured. It seems now that the captive has turned the table on the captor. By ceremoniously and conspicuously obstructing the President’s rushed agenda on health care, McCain got what many believe to be a justifiable comeuppance.
But he also did far more than that. He reminded our nation that in this time of extreme partisanship and rancor, we are failing to live up to our most cherished ideals. McCain is not a person who’s position on Obamacare is unknown. He has been a vociferous critic of the legislation’s failures, including the parliamentary sleights of hand Democrats used in order to force the passage of the legislation (primarily mischaracterizing the individual mandate as a ‘penalty’ and not a ‘tax’). He also railed against the sudden balloon in premiums for enrollees that was the result of faulty enrollment assumptions by the bill’s architects.
McCain is no fan of Obamacare. But he is a fan of our democracy. His thirty years of service in the U.S. senate, and before that his valiant service as a naval aviator and war hero, give him a platform by which to critique the process by which the attempted overhaul was made. The bottom line is that the Congress and the President tried to repeal the Obamacare on the cheap. It is all too apparent now. The states, including GOP-led states who had come to rely on the Medicaid expansion, would have been put in a lurch. GOP governors in those states would have paid a high price if the expansion was removed without an adequate replacement. And the upside – an early win for the President in his first year – could not have compensated for the political fallout that would have beset the party.
Let’s put party politics aside for the moment, and consider the effect of radically altering the health-care environment on the American people. By CBO estimates, the various republican plans would have removed coverage for between 22 and 30 million Americans. That is not what we ultimately wanted to achieve as a nation. We ultimately all want a situation in which Americans are healthy and productive, while enjoying a health care system that is robust and fiscally sound
And that, as senate McCain rightly chided us, is going to require work. The arcane and deliberative rules of the Senate were designed by the Constitution’s framers to force broad consensus and incremental change. We are not a kingship, but a Republic that stands united or falls in division. That is the grand bargain we struck when we declared ourselves a free people, and threw off the autocratic rule of the England’s monarchy. By design, achieving the goal of democratic rule by, of, and for the people requires more than merely the stroke of a pen or an executive order. Winning is achieved, not merely, in the outcome of the legislation that is produced, but in the process by which legislation is produced.
Senator McCain has long been a champion of the American people. He has dedicated and sacrificed his life and career to public service. There is no doubting that his motives are pure. And by sending us back to the drawing board on Obamacare, by forcing us to come to grips with our shared destiny as Americans, McCain has perhaps performed his most valiant public service to date.