Did McCain Abandon the Team or Take One for the Team?

(Quin Hillyer, Liberty Headlines) An interesting theory is making its way around the cyber-politico-world, namely that John McCain’s vote last week against the Senate’s health-policy bill was less a matter of abandoning his team than it was of “taking one for the team.”

McCain: Obama's Leadership Was Better than Trump's

John McCain Photo by Gage Skidmore (CC)

There’s almost no way to prove the theory one way or another. But its very plausibility – once the theory is explained and understood – provides the lesson that sometimes votes in Congress are not always what they seem to be.

The first inkling of the McCain-as-martyr theory came via a Tweet from the non-ideological site “Politics 1.com,” re-Tweeted approvingly by conservative pundit/operative Ford O’Connell.

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“McCain voted NO,” according to the Tweet, “so other GOP Sens who shared his view could vote YES last night to let them save face w/conservative base voters.” (Politics 1.com credited the Washington Post for the report, but it may have been a private discussion with a Post reporter, because a Google search found no such Post reports actually published.)

At Business Insider, free-thinking-but-right-leaning columnist Josh Barro endorsed the theory, and explained it, in a column called “John McCain saved Republicans from themselves.”

All the options Republicans have left themselves on healthcare are both terrible policy and dreadfully unpopular. So members haven’t set out to make good policy. They have set out to avoid being blamed for whatever becomes law — and also to avoid being blamed if nothing becomes law.

Lots of Republicans want Trumpcare to die, but nobody wants to be the Republican who murdered it. Except John McCain…. If you’ve been asking why McCain is getting so much credit for this hit job, rather than his two female Republican colleagues without whose “no” votes the bill would have also passed, one of the answers is that he has sought to make himself the fall guy…. [After all,] how do you threaten an 80-year-old man who is facing down an aggressive form of brain cancer? By threatening to back his primary challenger in 2022?…. Maybe the bill needed to fail by a one-vote margin, so the maximum number of Republicans could say they tried their hardest to repeal Obamacare and would have succeeded if old John McCain hadn’t stood in the way. A lot of Republicans are mad at John McCain for killing (this incarnation of) the repeal. But in time, they will be glad for the political cover he gave them by taking the fall for a murder many of them wanted to commit, so the party would not have to take ownership of an electorally disastrous policy.

In other words, the theory holds that this was McCain jumping on a political grenade in order to save his comrades.

While most Americans who are not political junkies might not ordinarily think this sort of posturing or quiet trade-off is the real story behind what appears to be a straight, up-or-down vote, close political observers immediately find these sorts of explanations believable. (Whether any observer accepts this as the real story in the McCain instance, or any other particular incident, depends of course on the observer.)

McCain himself, of course, said nothing about any such understanding, instead emphasizing that bipartisanship and proper legislative procedure can still revive the health-care effort.

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“The vote last night presents the Senate with an opportunity to start fresh,” McCain said in a statement, quoted by the Washington Post. “It is now time to return to regular order with input from all of our members — Republicans and Democrats — and bring a bill to the floor of the Senate for amendment and debate.”

No doubt that this explanation from McCain is true, at least as part of his reasoning. But whether it is the whole story is another question.

Many conservatives aren’t buying any of it, and many would look askance at either explanation for McCain’s vote. Rep. Steve King of Iowa bitterly said that McCain “recently told the Senate he would return and ‘give all of you cause to regret the nice things you said about me.’ He kept his word.”