Witcover: McCain revives his maverick label

Thank you for supporting our journalism. This article is available exclusively for our subscribers, who help fund our work at The Baltimore Sun.

It was John McCain playing the Jimmy Stewart role in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" on the Senate floor early Friday morning, as he rejected his Republican Party's scheme to repeal Obamacare.

In casting the deciding vote against its totally irresponsible bill to emasculate the health insurance law, Mr. McCain restored his reputation as the Senate's political maverick after previous loyalist GOP votes that had contradicted that old image.


"I've stressed time and time again," he noted in casting the "no" that buried the latest Republican repeal-and-replace effort, "that one of the major failures of Obamacare was that it was rammed through Congress by the Democrats on a straight party line basis, without a single Republican vote. We should not make the mistakes of the past."

In keeping with his earlier counsel on the subject, he said Congress "must now return to the correct way of legislating and send the bill back committee, hold hearings, receive input from both sides of the aisle, heed the recommendations of the nation's governors and produce a bill that finally delivers affordable health care for the American people."


Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor of Pensions Committee, said the Senate rejection "leaves an urgent problem that I am committed to addressing." Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer has repeatedly said his Democratic members are ready to engage, after solidly opposing the GOP plans.

But Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas observed: "I don't think the Democrats have any interest in doing anything productive. Republican senators are going to go home. They are going to hear from their constituents, and I don't expect the response to be muted."

Mr. McCain's vote, together with the rejections of Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, constituted enough to thwart the long and relentless manipulations of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to push a face-saving "skinny repeal" replacement that few really wanted.

The veteran Arizona senator and 2008 Republican nominee dragged out the showdown for all the theatrics he could manage. It was a fitting sequel to his dramatic 11th-hour, nearly cross-country jet flight to cast the deciding vote bringing the repeal issue to the Senate floor for debate. His arrival, on the heels of the post-surgery disclosure that he was now battling brain cancer, drew thunderous applause from Republican and Democratic colleagues alike.

Even the clumsy verbal arm-twisting by President Donald Trump, a very tardy recruit to the Republican last-gasp drive for some semblance of Obamacare repeal and replacement, could not carry the day. He tweeted weakly: "3 Republicans and 48 Democrats let the American people down. As I said from the beginning, let Obama implode, then deal. Watch!"

But Mr. Trump's lack of engagement throughout his party's futile efforts to kill Obamacare seems not to augur any effective involvement by him at this stage. The huge distractions of internal presidential staff warfare and Mr. Trump's brutal assault on his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for recusing himself in the Russian elections meddling controversy, should keep him occupied for now.

The extraordinarily profane telephone tirade to a New Yorker writer by new White House Office of Communications boss Anthony Scaramucci against (now former) White House chief of staff Reince Priebus has laid bare anew the dysfunction of the Trump presidency.

Incredibly, the man now running the Trump press operation pressed the magazine reporter to reveal to him the source for his story on Mr. Scaramucci's finances. Doing so was a basic violation of standard journalistic confidentiality between reporters and their sources. No further evidence is needed to conclude that Mr. Scaramucci is utterly unfit to deal on Mr. Trump's behalf with the news media covering him and his free-wheeling and chaotic administration.


As for the collapse of the Republican crusade to bury Obamacare and thus deprive millions of now-insured Americans of their health care insurance, there's a certain satisfaction for Mr. McCain in his role in its undoing. In a party that has conspicuously rolled over for this vain and self-serving president, the Arizona senator has shown his silent and accommodating GOP colleagues that some Republicans remain determined to stand up to this mean-spirited usurper of the nation's most honorable traditions of service to others.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is