But he’s not a political hero. And it’s pretty frustrating to watch the same scene replay itself over & over again with McCain always cast as the daring lead . . .
I went on a little tear about this, with respect to the GOP more generally, a couple weeks ago. In Show & Tell, I wrote about how the media – and some of the rest of us – were giving Republicans way too much credit any time they feigned acts of rebellion against Trump – “acts” because they always turned out to be all talk and no substance.
This time I want to focus specifically on McCain, because he’s mastered the art of winning over the media (and often many Democrats) with his “Maverick” persona, while doing very little to actually earn that descriptor. Yes, he can be cranky & critical of his party and occasionally a thorn in the side of leadership, but rarely in a way that requires putting himself out on a limb.
In fact, if you look at McCain’s recent history, you’ll see that as each of his primaries or elections approached, “the maverick” suddenly turned into a standard right wing Republican very much in lock-step with his party. The snappy criticisms disappeared, and they were replaced with a bunch of craven decisions entirely designed to appeal to the far right base. (See, e.g. the selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008, or the “complete the danged fence” anti-immigration campaign ad featuring virulently anti-immigrant sheriff Paul Babeu in 2010, or this most recent cycle when despite vocalizing complaints, he supported Trump’s candidacy throughout the entire campaign until finally the Access Hollywood tape came out, Trump’s poll numbers tanked and it looked like he was a lost cause).
Then once he’s safely reelected, McCain the outspoken maverick returns for a little while. So it’s important to keep in mind that the McCain of today is fresh off of re-election, and will not have to run again for six years, if he decides to run at all (he’s 80 years old right now). He literally has nothing to lose if he pisses some people off over the course of the next few months.
So McCain has been speaking out quite forcefully against Trump in the last couple weeks and he’s been getting a ton of attention for it, both from the media and from grateful Democrats/anti-Trumpers. He’s being lauded as courageous and heroic, and it seems, viewed as a potential savior for fearful and frustrated Democrats. Unfortunately, at least so far, I think this is giving Senator McCain altogether too much credit.
And this isn’t meant as a criticism of those celebrating him – that’s a generous, optimistic impulse.
I’m writing this only because I think it’s important that we don’t let the fact that the response from the vast majority of Republicans to Trump’s excesses & bad behavior has been so incredibly weak (or non-existent) lower our standards so much that we begin to view even the most minor pushback as heroic. So with that . . .
The moment that’s gotten McCain the most attention was a speech he gave at the Munich Security Conference in Germany last Friday. He didn’t mention Trump’s name, but he gave a series of criticisms in the speech that – to anyone with an objective view of Trump – seemed clearly aimed at the President. Aaron Blake of the Washington Post described the speech with this eye-catching headline: John McCain Just Systematically Dismantled Trump’s Entire World View. And this article was widely shared all over Facebook and Twitter.
McCain has also been one of the most vocal Republicans when it comes to Trump and Russia, both criticizing Trump’s warm attitude toward Putin and pushing for investigations into the election hacking and the Flynn situation. Back in December, McCain had said he was in favor of a bipartisan select committee to investigate Russia’s election meddling, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wouldn’t permit it, and there’s been no change in that status since, even after the more recent revelations.
So I don’t want to downplay or completely discount these efforts from McCain. These comments from him are good and important. Having a member of Trump’s party speak out against him does matter. It’s significant for people – both here and around the world – to see that Trump doesn’t have unquestioned support, even in his own party. It weakens him (ever so slightly), motivates the opposition and gives some reassurance to our foreign allies. So what McCain is doing isn’t nothing. But it’s not much.
If McCain really had the courage of his convictions, he wouldn’t just be talking about Trump, he’d actually be doing something to stop him. Instead, McCain has voted “yes” on every single one of Trump’s nominees for Cabinet Secretary/agency head except for one. (And the one he voted “no” on, Mick Mulvaney for OMB Director, it was only because Mulvaney had voted for military cuts when he was a member of Congress). Now consider this excerpt from McCain’s Munich speech that’s gotten him so much attention over the last few days:
The next panel asks us to consider whether the West will survive. In recent years, this question would invite accusations of hyperbole and alarmism. Not this year. If ever there were a time to treat this question with a deadly seriousness, it is now . . .
[Our predecessors] would be alarmed by an increasing turn away from universal values and toward old ties of blood, and race, and sectarianism.
They would be alarmed by the hardening resentment we see toward immigrants, and refugees, and minority groups, especially Muslims.
They would be alarmed by the growing inability, and even unwillingness, to separate truth from lies.
But what would alarm them most, I think, is a sense that many of our peoples, including in my own country, are giving up on the West … that they see it as a bad deal that we may be better off without … and that while Western nations still have the power to maintain our world order, it is unclear whether we have the will.
That sounds pretty scary, right? So what could McCain actually do about this, if he chose to?
Well, he indicates that he’s concerned about Trump’s worldview, so he could have refused to confirm Trump’s Secretary of State until Trump agreed to remove Steve Bannon (one of the biggest influences on this worldview and an all around dangerous influence on Trump) from his National Security Council. Or from the White House entirely.
He’s concerned about Trump’s strange affection for Putin and possible ties to Russia, so he could have refused to confirm his CIA chief until Trump agreed to release his tax returns so we can at least see some of his business ties. And on that topic, why hasn’t McCain expressed even an ounce of concern about Trump still having ownership in all of his overseas businesses? Think about how vulnerable that makes him (and therefore all of us) to corrupting influence or even blackmail. McCain has left that untouched completely.
But those cabinet posts have been voted on already, and maybe McCain would’ve thought it was too risky anyway to leave those positions unfilled. So then how about refusing to confirm Trump’s Supreme Court nominee until Trump meets the aforementioned conditions? That’s certainly reasonable, since we know for sure that Republicans feel the Court can operate just fine with only eight justices. (In fact, McCain himself suggested back in early November that if Hillary Clinton were to win the election, Republicans might block her from ever filling that ninth seat).
And now the investigations . . . Mitch McConnell won’t authorize the select committee investigation into Russia’s election meddling that McCain says he wants (McCain recently told NY Mag’s Gabriel Sherman, “The severity of this issue, the gravity of it, is so consequential because if you succeed in corrupting an election, then you’ve destroyed the foundation of democracy. So I view it with the utmost seriousness. I view it more seriously than a physical attack.”), so why doesn’t McCain tell him that he won’t vote for any of the Party’s priorities until he does. The GOP has a bunch of Obama-era rules they want to reverse, which only takes a majority vote (can’t be filibustered by Democrats). McCain can block any of those initiatives if he votes against them and gets just 2 other Republicans to join him.
Or better yet, how about McCain tells McConnell and Trump that he won’t vote for Obamacare repeal? That is the party’s brass ring, the ultimate goal, the thing they have to deliver to their base or be faced with absolute outrage. And yeah, McCain would be crucified if he voted against it. But so what? If McCain really wants to be a check on the danger that he described in that speech, that would be the most effective way to do it. Instead, he told Gabriel Sherman recently that since Congress won’t investigate, it will be reporters’ responsibility to investigate and put pressure on Congress to do so.*
These methods I’m suggesting might sound extreme, but Republicans used all sorts of extreme procedural maneuvers to block Obama during his Presidency, just to slow things down even on items that were inconsequential as a matter of substance. (Republican Senator Tom Cotton once put a hold on an Obama nominee for an ambassadorship to punish Obama for something completely unrelated. The nominee waited more than two years trying to get confirmed and eventually died of a sudden illness with her nomination still on hold). So if John McCain is serious about his concerns, he should be willing to use similar methods in a situation of grave consequence (by his own assessment).
And I understand McCain is only human, like the rest of us. We all look out for our own self interests. But we all also have a line, a certain point where our integrity matters more than our own self-interested desires. So where is it for McCain? If he truly believes what he said in his speech at Munich about the very survival of the west being at stake, if he believes what he said to Gabriel Sherman about the election hacking being worse than a terror attack – if the situation is truly that dire – shouldn’t he do whatever it takes to stop the threat, even if it means some people back home in Arizona might boo him at a town hall meeting or send him some angry emails??
Until I see action along those lines, I’m not ready to call him a hero or laud his courage, at least not in this arena. I appreciate him speaking out, but I’m keeping it in perspective. And if/when he truly does hold Trump accountable, I’ll be first in line to give him credit for it.
*Note: Yes, McCain is only one Senator. But Republicans have such a small majority in the Senate that one Senator can have a lot of power. Especially a Senator with friends. If McCain chose to use his power this way, there’s a good chance he’d be able to bring Lindsey Graham along with him (Graham’s not up for reelection until 2020). Then all it would take to sink a nominee or a majority vote on a bill is one more Senator defecting.
Marco Rubio has always claimed to be very concerned about Trump’s policies on Russia (and even pretended for a while like he might vote no on Rex Tillerson because of his close relationship with Putin). Maybe if McCain goes first as a “no” he can get Rubio to go along with him. We just don’t know. It’s possible McCain still won’t be able to make a difference. But so far, he’s not even trying. And if McCain wanted to be really bold, he could even threaten to put a “hold” on the nominees. A hold is a procedural move that allows one individual Senator to stall the process on a nominee indefinitely.