If you want to laud Senator John McCain for his military service, or for his occasional high-profile stabs at bipartisanship, feel free. But it didn’t take a lick of courage to vote against an ACA repeal bill that was supported by fewer than 20 percent of the electorate, and which would have killed off some unknown number of his constituents if it passed.
It isn’t “mavericky” to fly into the capital on Tuesday to offer the deciding vote to take up a series of bills that would have stripped insurance coverage from between 16 and 23 million people, only to grab the spotlight with a no vote two nights later during the final, decidedly operatic act.
“Wait for the show,” McCain had told reporters during last night’s grueling series of votes. Then, at 1:29 this morning, he walked to the center of the Senate floor, paused to make sure everyone was watching, raised his arm, and, like a Roman emperor deciding the fate of a fallen gladiator, turned his thumb down as he said, “No.”
Republicans faced intense pressure to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but they had nobody to blame for that but themselves. For seven years, they’d portrayed Obamacare as something between a bad outbreak of Ebola and a planet-destroying meteorite. Despite its flaws, many of which were intentionally inflicted by Republicans intent on depriving Barack Obama of a legacy, the law nonetheless reduced the rate of uninsured to an all-time low, expanded public health care to 14 million low-income people and slowed the growth in health-care costs dramatically.
But in Republicans’ telling, it had had the opposite effect, driving premiums through the roof and pricing millions of people out of the market. And those lies paled beside their blather about “death panels” and “government takeovers.” We never stopped hearing about Obamacare’s “victims”—the estimated 1.6 million people who lost mostly substandard plans after Obama’s unfortunate promise that if you liked your insurance plan you could keep it. Never mind that around 15 times that number gained coverage under the law.
Republicans found themselves in a position where they were forced to choose between screwing over their constituents in unprecedented numbers, or facing the wrath of a GOP base that had been whipped into a frenzy by their rhetoric and would now feel a keen sense of betrayal. But it was their rhetoric that created both the rock and the hard place they found themselves stuck between this week.
During the debates leading up to McCain’s moment in the spotlight, the “straight shooter” blithely repeated some of the most egregious Republican lies. He said Obamacare had been disastrous for the people of Arizona, when in fact 600,000 of them had gained coverage under the law. Calling for a return to “regular order” during a rousing speech that was described as “Sorkinesque,” McCain urged his colleagues to “hold hearings, try to report a bill out of committee with contributions from both sides,” and claimed this was “something that my dear friends on the other side of the aisle didn’t allow to happen nine years ago.” In reality, during the process for passing Obamacare, “there were hundreds of hearings and markups that lasted days or—in the case of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee—months,” according to Julie Rovner at The Atlantic. Hundreds of Republican amendments were brought up for a vote, and the final Senate bill was debated on the Senate floor for almost a month.
And even though the repeal effort failed, the GOP’s threat to destroy Obamacare has itself taken a toll. Jan Hoffman reported for The New York Times that the entire shambolic effort only “brought the anguish of protracted uncertainty” to “people whose health insurance is at risk.” In a series of interviews, Hoffman found some people who “said they did not know from one day to the next whether they would be able to continue screenings and treatment. They are postponing or accelerating major medical decisions, weighing whether to move to more insurance-friendly states, or to close modest businesses and search for employment with health benefits.”
They say that stress is the 21st century’s tobacco, a silent killer, and this drawn out process has created a ton of the stuff.
Today, as has been the case for most of his career, John McCain is being cheered for his independence and praised for putting country before party by both the press and many of his fellow Republicans. After his vote, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) stopped McCain and gave him a hug. “I love John McCain. He’s one of the great heroes of this country,” Hatch said later. “Whether we agree or not, I still love the guy.”
It’s been a different experience for the handful of Republican women who consistently opposed this charade from the start. They’re “facing an increasingly pointed backlash from men in their party, including a handful of comments that invoked physical retaliation,” according to Elise Viebeck at The Washington Post.
John McCain was no hero this week, but his vote did expose the cowardice of 49 of his colleagues. Senator Lindsey Graham, McCain’s frequent partner-in crime, called the GOP’s “skinny” repeal bill “half-assed,” the “dumbest thing in history” and a “disaster,” before voting for it.
The truth is that all of these bills should have gone down by lopsided margins.