Gruff and tough Sen. John McCain, 11 days removed from brain cancer surgery, returned to Capitol Hill Tuesday in time to turn a feckless Republican exercise in damage control into an inspiring moment of statesmanship in the service of American democratic ideals.
Boy, did this 80-year-old warrior of the Senate and naval hero get the tone and timing right. His appeal to colleagues in remarks from the Senate floor focused on the need to defy partisanship when elected officials have serious work to do. The American people will never get the government they need, and the country will never advance, he argued, if all politicians care about is stomping their rivals.
"Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio, television and internet," the Arizona Republican implored. "To hell with them. They don't want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood. Let's trust each other. Let's return to regular order," he said, referring to the traditional, collegial approach to Senate business. "We've been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle."
Bravo! Such a shame, of course, that McCain's speech was riveting in part because he's a sick man. But politics is theater, and his wounded appearance, with a surgical scar above his left eye, added extraordinary gravity to what was already a day that cried out for someone to shout "Enough with politics as blood sport!"
McCain flew to Washington from Arizona to support a dodgy procedural vote on the also-dodgy future of Obamacare. After a 51-50 vote, with Vice President Mike Pence breaking the tie, Senate Republicans now can open debate on a mess of a repeal-and-replace bill that Democrats won't touch and many Republicans don't like.
The GOP push to end Obamacare is a dreary, frustrating example of politics at the expense of reason and cooperation. The Senate vote was insensitive to the plight of millions of Americans who need access to health insurance yet have no idea what kind of bill Republicans have up their sleeve. GOP leaders won't say: Better to work behind closed doors to limit the political fallout.
McCain said he doesn't know if he'll ultimately support a health care bill. His point was that the Senate's approach to crafting repeal-and-replace reflects terribly on a deliberative body that should be able to take on tough legislation together. Instead, cooperation has fallen out of fashion, even on monumental legislation. President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act without any support from Republicans, and now Republicans would undo Obamacare without Democratic input.
Through history, McCain said, senators of different parties held contrasting views, yet they managed to work collaboratively. What's changed is today's emphasis on notching victories instead of delivering results.
"Incremental progress, compromises that each side criticized but also accept, just plain muddling through to chip away at problems and keep our enemies from doing their worst isn't glamorous or exciting," he said. "It doesn't feel like a political triumph. But it's usually the most we can expect from our system of government, operating in a country as diverse, and quarrelsome and free as ours. Considering the injustice and cruelties inflicted by autocratic governments and how corruptible human nature can be, the problem-solving our system does make possible, the fitful progress it produces, and the liberty and justice it preserves is a magnificent achievement."
We have no illusion that McCain's speech, however long it's remembered, will change America's political culture. But it should.