With the passing of Senator John McCain, America has lost a military hero, a patriot and a public servant of the highest order.
Senator McCain’s hallmarks were candor, honor and character in service to his country. Most importantly, he could put the public good over political partisanship—a rarity in our current politics.
In the course of McCain’s 31-year Senate career, he witnessed a decline in civility and cooperation and increased obstructionism. He was the last “Lion of the Senate” to champion bipartisanship and cross-party friendships to make legislative common causes. He joined with Democratic colleagues— like Joe Lieberman, Russ Feingold, Joe Biden, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry.
In his last Republican primary in 2016, McCain was disparaged by his opponent as a “champion of compromise.” He pleaded guilty — “There is no other way to govern an open society with widely disparate views,” McCain wrote in his last book, “The Restless Wave.”
“Principled compromises aren’t unicorns. They can be found when we put political advantage slightly second to the problem we’re trying to solve.”
Our nation’s history reflects the greatest landmark legislative achievements were rooted in bipartisanship—and compromises. The Social Security Act of 1935, promoted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, had overwhelming support from both Republicans and Democrats, passing the House 372-33 and Senate 77-6. Both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 won more than two-thirds approval in each congressional chamber.
The Social Security Amendments of 1965, creating Medicare, passed the House 307-116 and the Senate 70-24 on a bipartisan basis. And the bipartisan “Grand Bargain” compromise in 1983, brokered by President Ronald Reagan and Speaker “Tip” O’Neill, ensured the Social Security Trust Fund’s solvency for a couple of generations.
In recent years extreme political party polarization has led to dysfunction and stalemate. With little getting done, voters’ alienation from Washington encourages them to elect more people at the extremes, thereby stopping any compromise and blocking government progress on anything — a vicious circle.
In 2010, Democrats attempted to pass health care legislation without any Republican help. They were roundly criticized by Republicans for a “top-down” secret bill drafted with special deals for individual senators. Democrats succeeded in passing the 2,000-page Affordable Care Act without a single Republican vote. However, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s infamous declaration that “you’ll have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it” contributed to Democrats’ major “shellacking” in the 2010 election.
In 2017, Republicans attempted to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act using the same strategy as Democrats—pass a top-down drafted secret bill without any Democratic help. Republican efforts failed when Senator McCain joined two other GOP senators in voting against a “skinny repeal” bill which repealed key provisions of Obamacare but offered nothing as a replacement.
In his final floor speech on December 7, 2017, McCain called for a return to “regular order” in the Senate. This “bottom-up” process would require committee hearings, reporting a bill out of committee with contributions from both sides, and then bringing the bill to the floor for debate and vote.
Regular order is what Senator McCain successfully utilized as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. This committee consistently passed and the Senate approved an annual defense authorization bill, which was the product of bipartisan cooperation and trust.
McCain made it a point to travel to world hot spots in the company of a politically diverse delegation, ideally with new members along. He broke down barriers helping colleagues become better friends. He honored those in the military at all times.
With John McCain, it was “Country First.”
Jim Hartman is an attorney residing in Genoa, Nevada.